Sr Mary Threadgold RSC
As a child, the love of my life was my grandfather. From infancy, along with my father and brother, I had lived with extended family which included grandparents, uncles and an aunt. My mother had died shortly after I was born. Granda and I were besotted with one another; this was my first experience of unconditional love, which has stood me in good stead spiritually. I could do nothing wrong, and he was faultless in my eyes. This was a good model for, and introduction to, our Heavenly Father and the concept of divine compassion.
Granda was left an orphan in 1870. His parents died in an epidemic – either flu or cholera. They were buried in ‘the cabbage plot’ which was an emergency graveyard with no headstones. We never found their burial spot. He was fostered to distant relatives and grew up in Glenasmole, Dublin where the seeds of the faith must have been sown.
The Granda that I knew in the 1940s and 1950s was a man of deep faith. He used a prayer book to pray early each morning. He sauntered down every day to the parish church in Dalkey for 10am Mass, arriving in time to make the Stations of the Cross before Mass commenced. In the evening time, when the Angelus was rung by the parish church, he would find my brother and I wherever we were playing and call us to come with him to the bedroom where there was a picture of the Sacred Heart. There we would say the Angelus with him. After tea, we all kneeled and he led us in the Rosary. He was a regular attender at sodality meetings. He didn’t smoke and he rarely drank anything stronger than cider (which was his Christmas Day treat).
He never preached religion and he never read spiritual books, except perhaps an odd CTS booklet or missionary magazine, but he was a man of God. Granda was the embodiment of the Faith. It may be comforting for grandparents to realise that the loving example they give to their grandchildren does rub off and, although the seeds of faith may not blossom immediately, indeed they may take a long time to bear fruit, our hope is that in due course they will.
For older people, nothing is really simple. Those activities which younger generations take for granted, at some point become enormous in the risks they can pose to us.
Physical challenges like arthritis, or other causes of reduced mobility, often have an emotional or psychological overlay too (which can accentuate the physical challenges) as we experience the loss of the agility that we once took for granted. Social issues like loneliness are closely related to physical limitations when we are not able to leave the house to meet old friends or mix in social circles like day centres or active retirement groups. Further to this, for many of us, spiritual and emotional issues often overlap to create multiple levels of risk to our well-being.
Before moving on I would like you, the reader, to think about the issues that bother you. Then you can see how these can be helped by the suggestions contained herein.
Many older people experience loneliness or have relationship issues, either with some family members or other unresolved relationships.
There can be separate family issues to do with finance, property or wills and testaments. These all detract from the peace of mind that is so essential to your well-being, especially in later life. Another issue can be due to the fact that one’s social circle is shrinking as a result of death or incapacity of friends and acquaintances.
Positive relationships with adult children, and grandchildren, are a joy to many older people but that can be tempered somewhat by the number of grandparents who are asked to provide babysitting or childminding services for their families. A little is welcomed, but older people tire easily and sometimes too much is expected of them.
At another level, older people can frequently feel that they are not being treated with respect. In its worst form this can constitute elder abuse. Often there is nobody to give them time, to listen to them or share memories with them. There can be a lack of humour and laughter in their lives.
For some, it causes distress if they are addressed inappropriately, such as someone using their first name when they would prefer a more formal form of address or vice-versa.
It is very important to recognise that, as an older person, they need help. Some are unwilling to accept help either from family or acquaintances despite the fact that it is readily available to them, either informally or through the public health or social welfare systems.
This might include refusing to accept meal delivery services or attendance at a day or health centre. They might also refuse the services of home help or other types of domestic care.
It is so helpful and invigorating when you find a friendly person to have a conversation with, somebody who has time to listen and is interested in you as a person. Quality interaction, and engagement from all involved, is the key to satisfactory conversation(s).
In some nursing homes reminiscence sessions are held by the activity organiser. These bring back memories at a social level, but the opportunity to share old family photographs and memories with an interested family member or close friend can be even more comforting. Some, though not all, like to take part in the sing-songs and parties available. All the better if these involve younger people, as inter-generational sessions can offer a special dimension and energy to the occasion.
Finally, pets should be considered seriously. They are great companions. Dogs and cats have different qualities to offer a would-be owner. Dogs may be more expensive to maintain whether it is the cost of dog food, vet visits or grooming.
They also need regular exercise, sometimes intensive, which can be a problem if the older person has limited mobility, unless alternatives can be found for dog walking. However, they are such loyal and loving companions and have reduced loneliness in many lives. I recently read in a daily paper that older people are happier if they have “something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to”. Animals, especially dogs, are there to love and be loved, especially for people living on their own.
Cats on the other hand require lower maintenance. There will still be vet bills and cat food bills but they are very self-sufficient creatures, while at the same time offering company and affection to the housebound person. Cats have their own way of taking exercise, so therefore they require less rigorous attention.
Some older people have a liking for birds. They can be attractive both for their colour and their song. Parrots can be amusing if taught particular phrases. A fish tank is also an option, although help may be required in the maintenance of it as it can be an arduous task depending on its size.
Extract from Challenges in Later Life, a booklet published by Messenger Publications.