Past Memories are the Treasure of Older People

16 February 2024

Dr Anil Kumar is a Consultant Physician and Geriatrician in the North Midlands and Honorary Clinical Lecturer at Keele Medical School.

I recently visited India on a short trip as there was a family bereavement. This was the time of gathering of all the near and dear ones including close friends too. This was also the time when my phone started ringing more than usual as some of our older relatives could not physically be with us due to either being far away or being in failing health.

I was speaking to my widowed aunty in her late 80s. What struck me was her honesty and acceptance that the internet has transformed her life. She was personally very obliged and thankful for the development of WhatsApp and Facebook. These are invaluable tools especially for older people. She was telling me that if she had to pay to talk, it would have been more difficult as she would have to prioritise who to talk to and also be on guard in case she talked too long, resulting in large bills, which would be expensive for her as a pensioner.

My aunt also mentioned that when she speaks to acquaintances, she recalls those moments which both shared in the past. She has started to relive these times. According to her, these are precious moments which she finds very comforting. Old memories are an asset which she wants to go back to and relive. In this process, she could spend a few hours in reflection, and even enjoy her solitude.

She mentioned that she likes to talk with those who are of the same age as herself.  Unfortunately, these opportunities are less frequent now. Recently, she lost two of her close relatives with whom she would talk for hours. She also mentioned that she lives with her son and his family. Her daughter-in-law lives next door. They care a lot for her. However, she does not enjoy talking to her children as much as she enjoys talking to her older relatives with whom she had more in common. She lamented by saying children are children and though they care for her and are hugely interested in her wellbeing, she feels they are sometimes overcautious. This approach becomes quite restrictive and imposes on her freedom. They will caution her, saying ‘Mum, don’t do this or don’t do that, you will fall’ which she hates. She wonders why she is being reminded every time with examples of those who have come to some harm due to accidents.

My aunt is fed up as she cannot walk much due to arthritis, light headedness and fear of falling. She feels she is being a burden to the family despite having a good and intelligent brain. Regular check-ups with doctors, including medicine optimisation reviews, are done. She also gets therapy input as needed. These interventions help her to be as independent as possible, but she still lacks confidence in doing all the household chores.

During the conversations, my aunt casually mentioned that she had a tumble few days ago. She told me that there were no injuries and hence she did not tell any of her family members about the fall. She also requested me not to tell anyone,  as they would be unnecessarily perturbed. She said to me that she will now be extra careful but she understands that falls are inevitable. They can be reduced it but not prevented altogether.

She has accepted and been very thankful for the developments in medical science which are keeping her alive, albeit in poor health. She remembered her childhood days when it was considered a boon living beyond sixty or seventy and was unusual. However, it is quite normal now to see octogenarians and nonagenarians in the modern world!

She said jokingly that she was fully aware when she started to become ‘old’. Firstly, she noticed a few grey hairs in her scalp, later thinning of her hair. It did not stop there. She started to have meat fibres stuck in between her teeth and trips to the dentist to fill cavities. Development of presbyopia resulted in her needing to wear glasses. She started having difficulties in threading a sewing needle. Wrinkles appeared in her neck and all the doubts were removed when she observed the folds in her skin under the strong flow of a blow dryer while drying her hands at a local airport. She has had bilateral cataract surgery and her right knee replaced. On a few occasions, she has mentioned that she is awaiting her turn to be with God but wanted a sudden demise not a prolonged death. This resonates with the famous quote by Derek Jarman who mentioned that he was not afraid of death but of dying.

What struck me during the conversation with my aunt was that old age slowly creeps in and one keeps adjusting and adapting to the new changes. Those who refuse to adjust to the physiological changes, struggle. Older people also may feel isolated despite having caring family. Many of their counterparts are slowly disappearing which is a painful truth. Older people want to cherish their memories and that is their treasure. They also detest being reminded all the time of death and how to avoid disasters.

I salute my aunt for those insightful and thought provoking chats, and Derek Jarman, British artist and film-maker.


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