For me the past two weeks have been difficult, challenging, perhaps even hair raising. In the care of two Cuban surgeons my mother underwent a complicated surgical procedure that normally would be unimaginable for a ninety-seven year old body.
Setting aside the agonizing personal moral dilemma that signing-off on this undertaking provoked for an only child, this experience has made me stop and reassess much of my taken for granted assumptions about living, dying, and the care of bodies and spirits that will inevitably age and decline.
Thankfully, things have been made easier by knowing that the choices that were made reflect my mother's firmly held values and her disposition.
Yet, gentle SLC members, please indulge me as I share some of my thoughts. As I explained previously the militant anti-discriminatory position adopted by the Cuban surgeons profoundly affected my thinking. They explained that while age is influential it is not the primary consideration. That certainly puts paid to the frequently offered "Well considering her/his age...."
Rather they explained, it is the physiological state of the body in question and an assessment of the linked risk that justifies whether or not to move forward. This replaces our common sense assumptions about what bodies should or should not be able to do according to pre-assigned beliefs about chronological age.
This is a challenge to our established perceptions of the old, ageing and approaches to the provision of care. The domino effect is an invitation to explore and perhaps even overturn what is currently settling into becoming received wisdom about ageing, decline and dignified exits.
For example, I question what might be the sub-text of the growing popularity of "living wills" and the often implicit apologetic "don't want to be too much trouble" position that the circumstances of modernity might be bundling seniors and the ageing into?
If we are progressive, successful societies then we must be judged by our ability or lack thereof to extend equal consideration and/treatment to all irrespective of race, class, gender or age. What is the purpose of surplus if not to ensure that this goal of equal consideration is consistently achieved?
Is it really an exercise of autonomy and independence when physiological differences brought about by the inevitable passage of time convince us that we have a moral right to plan swift and uncomplicated exits in the name of choice? After a life time of declaring "the sanctity of life", yet suddenly because we can no longer strut our stuff, then self-erasure becomes the exercise of personal "choice".
If we fear marginalization, isolation or redundancy, then ageing, a rather non-selective process, is not the culprit. Rather it is popular perceptions of ageing fuelled by a widespread and exponentially increasing "death anxiety" that is the true source of the problem. The sags, the droops, the stumbles, the drools and the incontinences of the ageing body are all visceral evidence of the inevitable degeneration of the corporal. And so as the truly anxiety-saturated societies that we have become, rather than face and courageously engage with our fears we obliterate them with the strangest of acts of pseudo-bravery, particularly those that promise certainty and control to the end.
What if this is driving the rising clamour for self-annihilation, choices cloaked in the drapery of freedom, ironically by a group of people who are increasingly on the receiving end of widespread, largely unacknowledged age-based prejudice? This seems to me a classic example of avoiding the core issue and resorting to a sleight of hand that turns collective defeat into personal and individual triumph. The effect is to draw attention away from the real reasons for the ever growing levels of discomfort with the by-products of ageing and the indicators of approaching death.
Instead we can choose our own way out, mediated of course by all the economic and social variables that shape our lives. As always, the poor and disadvantaged seldom have the opportunity to voice their experiences, their perceptions or their aspirations about ageing, they remain as ever the doubly silenced.
Substantial inroads have been made on naming, shaming, challenging and protesting discriminatory practices based on race, gender and sexual orientation. Perhaps age is the final frontier; how very ironic.
So yes, let us look forward to a time when people over 60, 70, 80 and 90 no longer need to feel self-conscious, defensive or concerned about their age; when services extended are no longer framed as compensatory, special, owed to, or patronizing. Let us look forward to a time when opportunities are not denied because of largely irrational assumptions that are based on numbers used to populate demographic profiles.
Most importantly, we must move towards an open acceptance and celebration of the ways in which ageing offers the possibility of embracing and celebrating diversity and difference. Our declining years provide opportunities for giving and receiving care. What is the point if we spend our time avoiding or plotting our escapes from opportunities for truly caring for each other? Will this really make us a better society or better people?services extended are no longer framed as compensatory, special, owed to, or patronizing. Let us look forward to a time when opportunities are not denied because of largely irrational assumptions that are based on numbers used to populate demographic profiles.
If we place considerations about caring at the centre rather than the margins of lived experience this would mean that strong, sustainable interdependent and cross-generational relationships would be the norm; the valorisation of youthfulness and the assumed exclusivity of youthful virility would be replaced or even eclipsed by a broader recognition and celebration of the full spectrum of the traits that make us human and invaluable to each other.
Most importantly, each and every stage of human life and development would be respected and treasured for what it is and for its capacity to complement and bring balance to the individual life course and the collective energy of community life.
Then perhaps, descriptors like retirement and post-retirement will become as obsolete as "whites only" or "no coloureds"! And the performance of life saving surgery on a 97 year old body would be quite unremarkable.