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Just One Old Person.... What is it Like for Elderly People Living Alone at Home?
Not for one moment did you really think it would turn out this way. After all, you were always so well. You ate healthy food; vegetables freshly picked from the garden you loved. Perhaps you would love it still, if only the weeds were gone and someone could lend their caring touch. Now, though, you look out only onto an unkempt world of neglect and decay. Better to keep the curtains shut than to keep on looking out.
Not once did you think the time would come when you couldn't even write your own name. Who does think that way? Years spent penning loving words at the foot of carefully chosen cards....and yet now, like a small child who has yet to master the skills of life, the pen and your hand refuse to conform.
It makes you feel stupid; useless. Well, that's what you are, really. Your hand shakes and you can't hold it still, no matter how hard you try. Forced to ask for help for the simplest things, when once it was you doing the helping. You've always been a helper at heart - but now you can't even dress without assistance from that lady they send each morning. It's the last straw; this blushing humiliation. The final fragment of dignity, lost for good. Trickling down the plug hole as she helps you to wash. You know you will never again be able to do it yourself.
You used to draw; make tea for friends; spent whole afternoons with a jigsaw puzzle. When the grandchildren were over you would help them play their wild games. They loved hide-and-seek, and you knew all the best places. Happy laughter; warm innocence. Nothing but fragmented memories. Now, on a bad day, you just can't help wondering what it was all for. Too much time alone plays tricks on your mind. It really does. Who has tried sitting in a chair for hours on end with no one for company and nothing to do, day after day after day? Try it, and then you will see.
On good days, though, you can smile at life - if only for a while - and remember all the happy times, still vibrating inside your own heart. And of course, you are not a child. A child is like a fresh bloom in the springtime, looking forwards with dreams, hopes and passions. A child is like a sponge, ready and waiting to absorb all life has to give. You are the sponge wrung out, with nowhere left to go....except.....
You might be old, but you still have some wits about you. You know they all think it's time you left this house for one of those homes where they watch over you more. There's that place on the corner on the edge of town, where the rooms are airy and the grounds lead right down to the river. Nice, but not home. A prison, masquerading as a sanctuary. You know the score - you've still got your marbles....once you go in, you never get out.
And no one really understands. It's not their fault, they're all so young. The young might have the best intentions, but some things can't be understood until you've really been there. The point is that, here, in-between the cracks of lonely solitude and cobwebs that you know are there but just can't reach, the memories still sing quietly. For once upon a time, these four walls were full of laughter; love; fun; tears; battles, even. Each and every day. The high-pitched squeals of your own children permeated through rooms that once seemed small but now so large. There were parties; friends; Christmas hats and the smells of cooking. Mmmm, that roast chicken cooking on a Sunday afternoon, while the radio played and the cat mewed at your feet. You can't lock those memories away; you are just not ready to give up the one place that has really been home.
These days, it's only silence or the monotonous monologue of TV shows. You don't even know what they're about. It's just company; a sound in the corner of the room that relieves the deathly quiet. These days, it's only meals for one, ready prepared....somebody knocks at the door and you shuffle to greet them. Sometimes, it takes you so long you wonder if there will be anyone there when you finally turn the handle. Perhaps they can hear you coming; hear the clunk, clunk of that ugly frame. It's not even as if you look forward to eating - the taste is bland; the meat too chewy...or maybe it's you. The ability to shop; to choose and cook your own food - just another thing taken away. The simplest tasks, that everyone else takes for granted. It's the oven, you understand.....you left the gas on, not even once, but twice. You can't even recall doing it, though you didn't admit it to the lady who comes in the morning. Your daughter discovered you, slowly gassing yourself as you snoozed with your mouth open in front of Coronation Street. But it was the look on her face that frightened you the most.....it was the first time she realised that you were not the strong pillar you used to be; the first time she truly understood that you were losing it.
You remember the very days when the children left, hungry for life; burning with ambition. The house became quiet, though never as quiet as it is today. Once, silence was a welcome respite, now it is only a curse. First, it was two of you, playing scrabble in the little conservatory. So important to keep the brain working...although in the end even that can be bittersweet. You took turns to make the tea; basked in a comfortable quiet that was never there before. You even went abroad a couple of times, it was as though the world was your oyster. For you, though, there really was no place like home. Garden centres, walking the dogs, visits from the children, their boyfriends, partners, husbands. Grandchildren, that melted your heart with warm-hearted innocence; laughter like gold; tears pure and simple. Just the tapestry of life, woven together, from beginning to end.
And even the grandchildren are grown now....one in New Zealand, the other in London. When did you last see them? You can hardly remember. Just after Christmas, for a couple of hours? That was the one in London, the New Zealand one didn't come at all. He says he's got a camera thing....for the computer. It's a whole different world now, so many times you feel you're on the outside, looking in with muddled confusion. Anyway, people are busy these days. Busier than they used to be. Everyone has their own life. One can't be selfish, but only remember days gone by with fondness, when community was more important than money; when people didn't complain if they were poor.
You chugged along for a while, just the two of you, making the journey from young lovers to middle-aged best friends. Love makes many changes in life; the hot thrills of youth make way for a happy companionship. That was how it was for you, before the illness ate him from inside and snatched him away. You tried not to complain - after all, fifty years of marriage? It's more than one can really ask for. It's more than many couples manage today.
And do you know how worthless one can feel, when so many simple things turn into mammoth tasks? Or when you answer the phone and, try as you might, you can't follow the conversation. The words are too fast and your ears not so good....but that doesn't mean you are stupid. You only wish you could tell that to the stranger on the other end.
Do you know what it feels like to fall between the four walls of your own home; to lie there for hours with thin bones hurting against the hard floor as your body defies you? A small pool of your own blood, for do you know that skin can stretch so thin that it can barely hold you together? Like fragile tissue paper, it rips open with every knock, every scrape. Just another hurdle.
And there are so many thoughts, such feelings of helplessness. You are alone, and the phone which sits laughing but metres away, might as well be in another world. You wonder when someone will come....in an hour, two hours, three? If you'd had any sense, you would actually have worn the panic alarm you were given - after all, that was the point of it. It's just that the alarm makes you feel useless; like you just can't manage and it's time to give up. Perhaps you will spend the whole night just lying there, as the light fails and dusk turns to dark....and you can't even reach the light switch.
Let me tell you a secret....sometimes age creeps up on you, even when you have the naivety to think you have beaten it. One moment you are dancing like a butterly through the melodic evening of life, the next you realise that those legs will never dance again. Now, the dancing is all inside your own heart, for unlike a body, a heart can be any age. A heart contains everything - all the people you have loved; the places you have been; all that you've seen. They say you shouldn't live life through others, but for old people like you it's all you can do. A story from a loved one's life can almost be your own.
So you cling on to the stories and relish the days they come to see you. It means so much. It's all you have.
And sometimes, as you peer through the old net curtains that have seen better days, you see them strolling down the road - youngsters with noisy attitudes, kicking, swearing, blanking out the future...and you wish you could tell them that when you are young, life seems so long, but really it is so very short. You have to make the most of it, and embrace it with wonder and hope.
About This Hub
This hub is fictional, but based on some of the problems and feelings of isolation experienced by the elderly today. More and more people are living well into old age, and yet the very nature of our society means that they often experience high levels of solitude. Relatives have often moved away, or are consumed by other responsibilities such as work. Often, elderly people are still living alone in their own homes, even though they struggle with mobility and with every day tasks. Perhaps they might have intermittent help from carers, but still life remains hard and only deteriorates over time. Unable to leave the house alone, the lack of freedom and inability to fill time with activities can lead to depression. Topped with common accidents like losing balance and falling (after which getting up again is often not possible without help), day-to-day existence is fraught with anxiety. Injuries from falling can be slow to heal - the skin thins, meaning that even the most minor accidents result in bleeding.
I have drawn my perspective in this hub from my own family; in particular my late grandmother and two great aunts, still living in their own homes at the ages of 99 and 92. All three have lived alone for many years, after being widowed - my grandmother spent the last twenty years of her life, until the age of 97, without her husband. Although she did have family who loved and cared for her, daily life became hard (the fact that she was partially sighted made it even more difficult). However, she was an independent woman who did not wish to move into a residential home. Behind the curtains of many windows, up and down the country, are other people just the same.
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