You get the ‘dead grandma’ pieces, a young editor told me while I was researching my book on ageing. The classic one: a dying grandparent, poetic indulgence of the state of their skin – draping off the bones, turning a body into a landscape. The person becomes a prop of despair, a symbol that showcases the dim realities of life. The body that houses a once boundless mind is sunken, useless and the person is fading with it.
It was an important observation at a time when I was drowning in stories about ageing, and the illness that often comes with it. I saw that as observers we are both afraid of ageing, but also uncertain about how to speak of it. It is not a romanticisation of ageing, no matter the languid tones of the language we use to describe an ailing body. It is an indictment. We, the eloquent observers, who can magnify suffering by drilling down to its most evident and frightening aspects, think we understand it as well as we need to – a problem to be delayed because you’re not the one who is elderly.
Consider the shrill outcry to the treatment of aged care residents in recent times, with damning reports on aged care facilities in Australia prompting a Royal Commission. It is no big surprise that few people would ever wish to see out their final years in a nursing home. In the interviews I conducted for my book on ageing and illness, carers informed me that their parents had offered strict instructions to never be placed in one, while older people I spoke to revealed they had plans in place to avoid this fate. The tricky thing, one interviewee told me, is to get the timing right if you’re headed towards dementia, a condition that her elders all succumbed to in their final years.
And in all of this, one thing became very clear: it is easy to forget the humanity in all of us as we try to understand and deal with ageing bodies and minds that no longer work the way they used to. It’s easy to ignore why people find nursing homes so abhorrent, because daily pressures push you to see them as a necessity.
It’s easy to ignore why people find nursing homes so abhorrent, because daily pressures push you to see them as a necessity.
I thought deeply on this as I spoke with that young editor who, caring for her mother with a chronic illness, was critical of the very language of how we talk about disability, or ageing and illness.
At the time, Australian media was revealing that horrific conditions exist in nursing homes (not all, but even one is too many). Add to this fierce debates about euthanasia – opinions deeply divided on whether a person chooses when they exit this world if they are already dying. More specifically, the state of Victoria was debating the legalisation of assisted dying (laws that later passed, to much controversy).
Of all these people who wish to end their lives, the young editor said, “Have we ever considered that sometimes that might be because of the language that we use to describe them? The way we describe ageing and disability.”
It is the system that has failed to care, she said, adding that we live in an ‘ableist’ society.
Indeed, this is something medical professionals I spoke to also discussed. How we diminish people who are getting older, more fragile, as problems to solve, rather than people who may still yet have purpose, joy in big things and small, and many reasons to feel they have more to do.
It is easy to simplify the turbulent state of aged care in Australia, to blame poor care when much of the aged care workforce is not only under-trained but ill-supported and underpaid. It is tempting to think that people have lived out their best years and a few more relegated to a chair in front of a window is not that bad. But this is lazy.
There is also a systemic issue: we, as a society, are ill-equipped to understand the ageing process, or the fundamental breaches of human dignity that are involved when we are stressed by life’s demands and cannot manage an ageing person.
There is a way forward.
People who are headed towards their twilight years do not lose interest in their lives. Their desires magnify as they see opportunities fade. We need to foster a society that sees the value in all stages of life, one that allows ageing people to continue working, to have purpose beyond our perceptions of the grandparent. Not every elderly person has family. Old people aren’t just ‘cute’ and amusing. They are not children and shouldn’t be treated like it.
Nursing homes are an unpleasant prospect for most people. And yet, rather than suggest we have no choice, we can change how we think about ageing and inject more life into institutional homes. Pets, entertainment, time in nature, well-paid and highly trained staff, and genuine oversight and governance are all possible. Outrage is understandable, but what are we going to do with it?
Amal Awad is the author of Fridays With My Folks: Stories on Ageing, Illness and Life (Penguin Random House). Follow her on Twitter at @amalmawad.
What Does Australia Really Think About… premieres 8:30pm Wednesday, 18 August on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly. Episodes will be repeated at 10.15pm Mondays on SBS VICELAND from 23 August.
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