Back in the 1980s…
Back in the mid-1980s, my social planning firm did a roaring trade in ageing. Every Sydney developer fantasized about making a fortune in retirement housing. We were a small firm of social planners – trying variously to dissuade them or help them. Most were beyond help: so gripped by greed that they could not discuss matters as banal as gerontology. Blessedly, the fashion passed and we returned to homelessness and poverty (not ours – our subject matter).
The good thing was that we learned so much about the physical and psychological factors associated with ageing. Then in my forties, I could not imagine my own elderhood; it was a distant reality. My most brilliant employee, in her early twenties, was a young architecture graduate.
Together we trawled through volumes of research and crafted detailed site-planning and design guidelines for older people’s housing. Tromping around retirement villages, cursing their failings, we became experts in non-slip surfaces, sheltered seating, walking circuits, natural surveillance, ramp design, handrails… And, considering the older residents themselves: limited visual acuity and peripheral vision, susceptibility to glare, inability to hold a mental map, disorientation in space and, most emphatically, fear of falling.
Recently, a dear friend of mine fell and broke her hip (she’s 79). She was squatting to inspect a cupboard when a mouse jumped out and startled her, causing her to fall backwards. She spent a month in the hospital and is recovering well. But now my feisty friend (who walked the width of England in her early seventies) emails to say she’s afraid of going out for a walk on crutches.
Once I might have found that hard to believe.
But now I understand.
Not paying attention
A few years ago, not paying attention (actually peering somewhat rudely at a building under construction), I slipped on roadside gravel and dislocated my shoulder. It hurt a lot. I was terrified of falling again; I began to feel fragile, old and crippled. A wise friend instructed me to return and walk confidently past the house. After I did that repeatedly, my fear abated. To combat my fear of knocking my shoulder, our compassionate local hospital nurse recommended a sling when I travelled by plane. Who would be mean enough to knock a nice old lady with her arm in a sling? It worked a treat. (As did the odd pre-booked wheelchair for long air journeys.)
Recently, I spent a month teaching at Harvard: the highlight of my career. And a shocking and salutary experience for a person turning seventy.
I feared my boots (from Myers department store in Adelaide) would not pass muster but my Boston host thought I might survive February.
How wrong she was!
A week into my visit, the fiercest blizzard in 57 years blanketed Boston.
A Blizzicane. Nearly a metre of snow fell in a few hours.
After we dug ourselves out, I took my credit card to Eastern Mountain Sports in Harvard Square but fear had me in its grip. Now I had warm boots with good tread but I was absolutely terrified. Terrified of the footpaths at night (our classes ended at 6 pm; taxis were out of the question).
Not surprisingly, every path on the campus of America’s premier university was plowed within seconds.
That wasn’t my problem.
My problem was low-density suburbia.
Despite Boston’s admirable transit network, suburban Boston is crap for pedestrians. Everyone drives gigantic cars with snow tyres. There I was in my overpriced `showerproof’ down coat (bought in Melbourne in January) and new boots that weighed a ton. And a backpack full of books and a laptop.
My nightly walk home from the Harvard bus was six long blocks along poorly lit and partly plowed footpaths (and out into the street at the unshovelled patches). Sharing the carriageway with the cars – all of us skeetering between high snowbanks through rutted snow.
All I could think of was my dislocated shoulder. And my fear of falling.
Actually, that’s not true. My shoulder worries paled in comparison to Fear of the American Medical System! Even with travel insurance, I imagined myself chained to a hospital bed, held to ransom with a broken arm, leg, shoulder, hip . . . you name it . . . in a hospital charging a trillion dollars a day.
I’d taken an elderly Canadian friend to hospital in Honolulu five years ago and she’d barely escaped!
Meanwhile, my younger colleague completely discounted my fears. The same fears we’d researched decades earlier.
What’s your problem? The snow will melt. It’s only six blocks. You’ve got boots. You’re sorted.
Raffi to the Rescue
My Armenian cousin, a long-time Boston resident (and my age) was my saviour. Before the snow melted, he took immediate action to avoid my melting down. Brooking no interference, he moved me – coat, books, boots, laptop and decaf tea bags – into his apartment in Charlestown (a dense inner city neighbourhood with well-lit streets, plowed and navigable). Close to the subway and with caf©s and pubs to die for.
And there I stayed for several charmed weeks, happily travelling about Boston on public transit. Grateful for the blessings of his generous hospitality.
(Maybe blood is thicker than water?)
The take-home messages from my story?
I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that this experience had a profoundly unsettling effect on me.
I cried a lot.
And then (finally), I got to thinking. What can I make of this?
What can I learn? What can we learn?
First, as our Baby Boomer generation ages, we need to understand mobility – and immobility. It’s not just physical; it’s also psychological.
Second, we’d better start talking openly about these matters and not be afraid or ashamed. (What’s there to be ashamed of, in any case?)
Third, we’ll need supports. And we’d better get them in place before an emergency. We need to know how and where to ask for help.
My friend with the mending hip is well networked into her community where she’s lived since 1974. She’s having gourmet meals delivered and local people come to clean her house as part of a community program. She’ll be fine.
The age-friendly neighbourhoods initiative is a good way to start. South Austalia has made a good beginning:
Fourth, we must accept that some of our younger colleagues are firmly in denial about ageing – ours and theirs. You know the types: the cyclists, yoga enthusiasts, marathon runners, extreme athletes”¦ (Please pass the chocolate”¦)
As an example, take my younger colleague. She has a lot to learn.
Sad but true: ageing is an expert blind spot.
By speaking out about our fear and demonstrating our resourcefulness, we can teach her.
So that she can teach her students.
And we all can benefit.
I guess, in the end, that it’s all about care. (Didn’t I write a PhD thesis about that?)