Old age is not for sissies


Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby JaneOn New Year's Eve, I went with my son and his family to lunch at the oldest hotel in Kalamata, which has a comfortable atmosphere and a buffet selection that suits my two grandsons, who are now seven and five.

On entering, I noticed a man and a woman at separate tables. Neither, I judged, would see 80 again, and I sent silent messages of congratulation their way, for Greeks generally hate being alone and hate being seen to be alone even more. But sometimes they have no choice.

Meal over, we were putting our coats on when the old man came over, and addressed my son and his wife. 'I just wanted to congratulate you,' he said, 'on the children's perfect behaviour at table.' Of course this was music to parental and grandmotherly ears: I was proud of Nikitas and Maximus. But then I was proud of their parents as well, for the old man wanted to talk, and did so for at least ten minutes while my son and his wife listened and conversed politely and enthusiastically: Greeks are not embarrassed or awkward in the presence of the old.

Later I mentioned the loneliness of old age to my son, and remarked on the courage those two people had shown in fighting it during the festive season. These matters are still academic to him, but he nodded, while I made a mental note to mention Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight' at an appropriate time.

In rural Greece, it is still considered shameful to instal an old relative in a home, and most aged people see their days out in the bosom of the family. My local shopkeeper, for example, has her mother and her mother-in-law living with her. Both are in their 90s, and are hale and hearty: they take an interest in customers and in doing chores around the shop.

As well as company, routines and habits are important, as I observed again in the case of an old man I saw while waiting for my bus. He'd taken time off from chatting with his cronies near the betting shop in order to tame a recalcitrant branch of jasmine nearby. Between us we managed it, with the aid of his walking stick, and he immediately assumed the air of the pleased and practised gardener.

That same day, I had taken a handwritten journal extract to be photocopied: the piece had been written by someone who lived through the German occupation. The man doing the copying glanced at the pages, and said, 'How well I remember my grandfather and his stories of that time.' He and his grandfather had been inseparable companions, he said, and his face lit up at the memory of this valued person.

London journalist Adrian Gill, always trenchant in his opinions, speaks out regularly against the neglect of the old in Britain. 'This,' he has written, 'is the greatest shame and horror of our time.' But there is much worse than just simple neglect: the abuse of the aged is a particularly nasty problem of the iceberg variety; in both Britain and Australia very few cases are reported, and even fewer perpetrators punished. Yet surely our treatment of the old is a basic measure of our humanity?

Gill refers to the 'incremental shutdown' of old age, and ageing does involve sorrow and loss: there is a process of mourning for past youth and missed opportunities. British Prime Minister Disraeli, who died at the age of 77 after a life of great and varied achievement, stated that old age was a regret, while noted Hollywood star Bette Davis (pictured, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane) roundly declared 'Old age is no place for sissies.' She had a point: ageing is hard work, and takes guts.

Of course there are, at best, compensations: the freedom in not caring as much about what other people think, the pleasure of grandchildren, gratitude for good health, many memories, and the great gift of time. But still, there's the loneliness. The proverb states that it takes a village to raise a child; each community should also look after its elderly. In and at the end, we all need a hand to hold.


Gillian Bouras headshotGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, ageing, Disraeli, Bette Davis



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Existing comments

I think you have hit the nail on the head about the difference in the way older and possibly more mature societies and younger and possibly more frenetic societies value and treat the aged, Gillian.

Edward F | 05 February 2014  

A provocative and beautiful piece. As a member of U3A, a group which does look after each other whilst having fun as well, I'd like to share this with the group. Good for reflection. Do I need permission for a non-profit organisation to put it in our newsletter?

diane bell | 05 February 2014  

As always, Gillian, i appreciated your article.I visit a wonderful lady of 108 and often think of her courage, as well as her interst in othrs. She always asks about mutual friends.

Maryrose | 05 February 2014  

You touched a chord in my melody! I hope I have the guts to face old age, but I rail against the loss of each gift as it's taken from me. Yes, there ARE compensations - I hope my 'village' won't let me down!

glen avard | 05 February 2014  

Your article's different aspects sent my brain wandering. About Greece, I can say from my own long time exprience on islands, that many old people do not have a family who cares for them. Because their children emigrated to America or Australia. These old people, mainly simple, former farmer women, are left either by themselves in their VERY simple, uncomfortable tiny homes - or put into the (also simple, not really professional) local Old Peoples' home. My "granny",as I call her, who I have known for over 8 years, aged 82, plagued by different diseases is one of them. Her only son left for Australia 30 years ago. He phones her now and then, visits her for two weeks in summer, somtimes with a grandchild which she cannot communicate with. Still, she fights against solitude - also by writing a letter to me almost every week. She considers me as her daughter. What an honour for me, being Austrian! When I asked her how she spent Christmas, she wrote: 'Christmas was nice, some of my distant relatives surprisingly took me to their home. But Agios Vassilis was even better: I had the company of all the (stray) cats, only them and me spending the evening in my house. Moving..... Wilma Allex

Wilma Allex | 05 February 2014  

No mention was made of caring with the elderly with dementia. The snippet sounded idillic, both old ladies were fit and able, but what of the infirm, the wanderer, the aggressive. Yes it is terrible when the frail elderly are not cared for properly, but frequently it is beyond the capability of one person to do just that. I found it very sad to hear of an Australian woman of Polish descent ostracised by the Polish - Australian community after she put her Mother inhto care. The community criticised, but did not help. The woman had cared lovingly for her mother for 6 years but could no longer manage.

Gabrielle Jarvis | 05 February 2014  

Inspiring and provocative article, Gillian. I love the allusion to the village raising a child and agree entirely. We have a way to go. And Glen, I have observed you within your village, modelling inclusive care and ensuring that there is no letting down. Be not afraid! You are a touchstone.

vivien | 05 February 2014  

Yes Gillian, I feel I am beginning to enter the land of old age myself and am starting to sense Bette Davis's point that it is no place for sissies - particularly if you are trying to do battle with the world as well. However Robert Frost strikes a greater chord with me in his statement "The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected". I believe the potential for wisdom exists with age and there can be consolation in this, as well as an increasing sense of peace.

John Whitehead | 06 February 2014  

Point gently made here that loneliness can also be your character traits and abilities deserting you, and your friends'journey along this path leaving you alone. Am only 68 but have observed this in two(younger)friends last few months.

G M Gilbert | 06 February 2014  

Adele HORIN (former SMH/ABC journalist) has a brilliant blogsite in which she, too (like Gillian in this posting has done) discusses ageing - in all its aspects. "Coming of Age" she calls it - echoing at the same time the title of one of the latter books by US oral historian "Studs" TERKEL - the stories from a lot of (then) elderly social reformers in the US of the 1920s, 1930s - whose stories would otherwise have been buried under heartless, triumphalist & otherwise bland concrete! I was recently at a 90th celebration - and chatting with a woman into her 80s whom I had not met before - but we found common threads - into Greece and the island of Megisti (Kastellorizo). As a youngster I had thought anywhere north of of 50 was ancient - but even now as I sit on the cusp of 65 I feel my youth in the face of the lives and experiences of those 20 and more years my senior. Yes, Gillian - wisdom and accumulated understanding (or vice versa) and our respect for/care for for such human repositories is the benchmark of our humanity! Thank-you for this reminder.

Jim KABLE | 11 February 2014  

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