I spent a lot of time this week with my dad. Even after 50+ years of knowing him, he still has stuff to teach me. We went to visit his younger brother – there’s 13 months between them all. For him, time has taken on new meaning. He has something – dementia, Alzheimer’s – he’s lost his memory. We were chatting and he told me that he’d lost it. To which I found myself replying – Everything to you is new, wow. Every meal, every experience. Imagine tasting ice-cream for the first time, every day? But no, he said, it wasn’t the experiences that he’d forgotten, it was the names, the faces, the connections, the links. He’s 91 but he’s open to being any age.
While we were there, an elderly lady came and stood at the door. She was holding on to a baby doll, as if it were a real child. She remonstrated with us telling us to ‘be proper, be proper, be proper’. God only knows where the woman’s mind is. But no matter what they remember or don’t remember, that human contact seems all too important.
At the end of the second WLC week, my wellbeing was to make contact with three different people each day. You’d think that wouldn’t be a problem. Just fire off three emails or make three comments on FB or, God forbid, actually talk to three people. But it wasn’t simple enough to manage, to get the 35 points on offer for successful completion. I’ve noticed that I’m guarding my time, and being very careful whom I spend it with or on. I’m avoiding group meet-ups and parties, as energy is limited and I’m easily drained. And while I know that as a card-carrying introvert, my happy place is sparsely populated, the danger of retreating is all too real.
Reading Death on Demand recently, a cop novel by Jim Kelly, Valentine had this to say: ‘You won’t know this yet but life stops when you’ve got no one to tell; no one to receive. We’re like radios, I think – transmitting and receiving, but if there’s just you, what’s the point?’
Last year, Joseph Lindoe opted to live alone in a flat for a week. He did this to highlight the loneliness that is rampant among the elderly. His account makes for interesting reading.
This is in the UK. And it’s a problem in Ireland, too. But here, there’s the added element of fear. Just yesterday, I heard of an elderly couple in the village who had moved in with their daughter because they were afraid to live alone. Not because they might fall or anything, but because they might be robbed and beaten up – in their own homes. This is a real fear. It happens. The elderly are being targeted. What sort of person could do this? I can’t begin to imagine.
One of the pluses, though, of having close neighbours, is that everyone watches out for each other. Remember the 1919 novel The Valley of the Squinting Windows? I used to hate that everyone knew everyone else’s business, but now that my parents are of an age, and I’m not always around, I’m very grateful that there are those who would notice if Mam didn’t show up for mass of a morning or if Boss wasn’t seen up the garden. It makes being at a distance that much easier.
Paradoxically, though, until himself came on a scene a few years back, I often thought that if I fell out of reach of a phone on a Wednesday afternoon, it would be a full week before anyone would notice I was missing. And a lot can happen in a week. Such is the plight of single people all over the world. Back in 2007, 44-year-old Sandra Drummond was found dead in her flat in Hulme, Manchester. She’d been dead for nearly a year and no one had missed her. Elizabeth Day, writing in The Guardian, described Sandra and her ilk as
modern-day Eleanor Rigbys who die with no friends or family to notice.
How sad is that? Young and old alike, those living on their own need to connect. And those of us who tend towards solitude, need to take care not to lose ourselves in it.