On age: it is only a matter of time

This post is inspired by a conversation with a friend who teaches a ballet class for elderly people. It’s quite a big class with around 20 dancers aged between 75 and 90. They do a 1.5 hour class which includes a warm-up, a full barre, floor work, enchainment and even a grand allegro. It sounds quite demanding. She told me why she loves teaching children and elderly people to dance: although they are very different in terms of their ability and how they learn and work, they are more responsive than others to nurturing and encouragement. It’s not just about instruction; it’s about caring.

Our conversation turned to the relationship between children and old people; how children don’t view age in the same way as adults do. Children are generally more tolerant than adults in that they have fewer preconceptions and elderly people often have the time to listen to children, especially these days when parents are struggling with the ever-precarious work-life balance.  We are time poor and this can make us impatient. For children, old age is relative; they see all adults as old. For them, elderly people are older still. Old age is less frightening for children than it is for adults because it is a lifetime away.

These thoughts bring back two personal memories. One was from my schooldays, when one of our work experience options was to help out with social work locally. My assignment was to do some light shopping for an elderly lady and to keep her company for a few hours a week. She was a lovely lady in her eighties who had once been an actress and dancer, but was virtually immobile, confined to her upstairs flat and reliant on meals on wheels and visits from various carers and cleaners. She had no living relatives. We got on very well and I loved listening to stories from her youth. Some of them were quite risqué!  As I got to know her, I discovered she had not left her flat for months, apart from a visit to the doctor’s. I felt so sorry for her and I decided to find a way to take her out.

My friend’s boyfriend had a van, and they were both willing to help, so one afternoon in early summer when I was supposed to be keeping  her company, the three of us carried her down the stairs, put her in the van and took her out for tea in Richmond Park. She loved it and we all had a wonderful time. But when this adventure was discovered – I cannot remember how – I was sacked from my work experience post for irresponsibly removing the old lady from her flat.

With many years’ hindsight, I can understand the issues – what if there had been an accident or she had been taken ill? The social services would have been hard pressed to explain why one of their charges was running around London in a van with two 16-year-old girls (me and my friend) and a 20-year-old boy (her boyfriend). On the other hand, as a young girl, I didn’t see her in the same way as social services did. This is not a criticism of the social workers who no doubt had a tight schedule of multiple visits each day; it was a matter of time. In one afternoon a week for a couple of school terms, I spent long enough with her to see beyond her immediate situation and physical issues to discover a life scattered with glitter and glamour, sadness and loss.

Years later, my grandmother was in an elderly people’s home for the last couple of years of her life. It was a friendly place with caring staff and at Christmas they put on a party with some entertainment for the residents and their families. My son, who was about ten years old at the time, went along. As one of the few children there, he spent some considerable time talking to the residents. I asked him what they talked about. “Not much,” he said, “They kept asking me my name and where I went to school. Some of them asked me the same questions two or three times.” Did this bother him? “Oh no, they are very old. They have a lot to remember”. 

Every day we are making more memories and every day we are subtly changing. Here’s Noah Kalina’s memorable video to one of my all time favourite songs: Everyday, by Carly Commando



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