The world is aging. We mention the many facets of this demographic shift often on this blog, and the world is just beginning to come to terms with them and encourage higher fertility rates. We would all do well to better understand the emotional and physical challenges the aging face, as such a high proportion of our society moves into this age bracket. Sometimes I find the best way to enter into someone else’s daily reality is vicariously through a good novel. I just read the 1971 novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor, and found it to be a poignant insight in to the challenges of aging.
The reader shares the main character, Laura Palfrey’s, journey – the constraints, the vulnerabilities, the loneliness, the boredom and, at times, the feeling that you are no longer of ‘use’ to society she experiences when she must finally move into a retirement village (actually an English hotel where a number of retirees live which apparently used to be quite common):
“She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach.”
She must adjust to being on her own after decades of having her husband’s companionship at social events and at home, and take care of matters like her finances for the first time:
“Her fall had deepened her uncertainty. And there was no husband to take her arm across a road, or protect her from indignity when she failed.”
Daily rituals that had previously seemed trivial take on the utmost importance. All the residents of the Claremont miss the ability to entertain, to run their own homes, and lives shared with their spouses. They come to look forward to visitors, meals and the smallest variations from routine to brighten their weeks, and Mrs Palfrey feels deeply the failure of her only grandson to visit her. Life becomes more and more limited, with ailing bodies and lost friends. However, Mrs Palfrey’s strength and good humour is admirable through hardship and sacrifice. Perhaps old age is the final test of our character:
“It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost.”
One reviewer comments of the book:
I often feel frustrated that my surviving grandparents have allowed themselves to become practically housebound, but now I think I understand a little more about why they do live like that. The outside world can be a scary place when you’re 80 and surrounded by technology you don’t understand, fast moving people and vehicles and an exhausting array of noises and experiences and shops and people talking and general hustle and bustle.
It’s easy for the young to take their youth for granted; to dismiss the old, to ignore them, avoid them, disrespect them. But they were us once, and we will be them, in our turn. Even though this book depressed and saddened me, it also gave me the determination to treat the elderly with more respect and tenderness, and to visit my grandparents more. The elderly have an important place in society; they are vessels of history, and of wisdom.
Ageing and dying are upsetting realities that many of us succeed in forgetting most of the time, delusionally behaving as if they will never happen to us. Yet, they are well worth reflecting on once in a while, so that we might live better. Though the novel is melancholic, it also has many moments of humour. I personally found it an easy read, enjoying it the whole way through for its insights into this time of life, its perceptive characterisation and its humorously astute depictions of social situations.