ART, AGE, AND WHAT TO DO
I just watched a video called Suicide Awareness and Prevention for Older Adults; I was watching it because the Crisis Centre has been talking to me about leading workshops for care workers (I think they’re now called Gatekeepers) who are involved with older people. Having already been to a couple of meetings about this issue, I am aware that many aging men and women are now living solitary and lonely lives, locked away by their own choosing in apartments in West End towers and elsewhere. It’s very sad, and this video attempts to provide instruction about how to deal with old people who are depressed and possibly contemplating suicide. According to statistics quoted in the video, an inordinately large number of people over the age of, say, 60 are committing suicide, and with the aging of the so-called boomers, these numbers are expected to increase.
First of all, I have to comment on the video, because I thought it was rather poor. It’s probably unfair to judge this instructional video by artistic standards, but here goes. There is a scenario threaded through that concerns a man of 72 whose wife had died two years previously, and who is taking to drink, not looking after his diet or personal hygiene. Sorry, but I thought the acting was very unconvincing. I also found it rather unnerving—and I speak from the standpoint of one well past the age of 60, even past 72—that the featured experts were all professional practitioners of geriatric care in their, I would say, mid 40s. Ha! What do they know?, I thought. But now I am being unkind, because surely these people are experienced, highly-trained, and well-meaning to a fault. The featured narrator, a psychiatrist I believe, obviously reading from a teleprompter, appears frequently throughout to fill us in on the latest statistics and other features of what it means, in the professional view, to grow old. The other practitioners who appear are more convincing in the unscripted portions of the presentation.
Mr. Johnson attempts suicide
In the drama, the elderly Mr. Johnson, after a small mishap with his car (he had been knocking back the scotches in a bar), goes to see his GP. He complains of a sore back as a result of the accident. The kindly young doctor questions him about other aspects of his life and whips out the prescription pad—you know, something for your pain, something for your depression, don’t drink while you’re taking these, and see you next week.
On the next visit, the doctor does question Mr. Johnson about any possible thoughts of suicide, which the patient denies. He is given a brochure describing the Crisis Centre (Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of B.C.). Once home, though hesitant at first, he picks up the phone and dials the number. He receives rather cold, formulaic (sorry, Susan) and preplanned-sounding responses. However, sticking to the script, Mr. Johnson is pleased and relieved to have made contact, and optimism appears to have won the day, though not for long.
In a later scene, after a visit from his ever-worrying and bitchy daughter, he impulsively drinks a bunch of whisky and swallows a handful of pills. Daughter finds out because he doesn’t answer the phone; we see him taken to hospital where he now will presumably receive the professional care that makes everything turn out OK. The final scenes portray our elderly hero enjoying a sort of go-fetch Frisbee game with his grandson.
What is wrong with this picture?
What is wrong is that poor Mr. Johnson really doesn’t have anything to live for. He doesn’t appear to have any interests—other than drinking—and no excitement of any kind in his life. He claims to be bored with his friends and irritated by his grandchildren.
I can imagine that he worked at the same job for many years, while his wife raised their daughter and dutifully looked after the cooking and housekeeping. What did they do to while away their evenings together? My guess is that they watched television. They probably had plans for an uneventful retirement, he would play golf, she would continue to cook, and they might go on a cruise or two. These plans were painfully subverted by a deadly cancer suffered by Mrs. Johnson leading to her death. Once she was gone, Mr. Johnson truly had nothing left. Of course he didn’t look after his diet or personal hygiene because, like many men, he had no occasion to learn how to cook or to clean. Because their relationship was probably one of co-dependence or symbiosis—two people work together to make one person—he was left without mooring or itinerary.
I know this sounds harsh, because being alive always seems better than being dead, but if life is, in fact, a living death, what’s the point? Was there anything in his life to provide a context within which to grieve, or a reason to find stimulus and interest in life? Did he read, go to concerts or art galleries, or even engage in political debate with his cronies? Apparently not.
A reason to be alive
What I’m getting at here is that art, in all its forms, provides not only a reason to be alive but also a purpose and direction in life. Have you read all the novels of Dickens? Heard all the string quartets of Beethoven? Been to the Uffizi or the Prado (even via the Internet)? Are you learning a foreign language? Do you know the musicians and painters, young and old, in your community? Do you accept the challenge of contemporary art, music, and literature? Do you care about making the world a better place?
My question is why didn’t the young doctor, instead of prescribing pills, ask Mr. Johnson what he did every day? What was his life like? Did he have any interests? Perhaps, instead of medications, a better prescription would be for a visit to the library or art gallery. (I doubt that you can do yourself any harm by overdosing on either.) Why don’t the practitioners and caregivers (oops! Gatekeepers) focus on what might give the aging population some reason to be excited about living, some sense of making a contribution to society, leaving a legacy?
Speaking of leaving a legacy, I’ve always thought that one of the most fun things to do, once I’m beyond the age of dashing about, would be to read to kids at the local library. I can hear the kids talking already, “Remember that old coot that used to read Wind in the Willows to us on Tuesdays? We used to laugh when sometimes tears would run down his cheeks as he read. I hear he kicked the bucket a while back. I sure like that book though; I’ve read to my kids about three times already.” Why not?
Youth vs. Age
We often cite stories of young people who have done remarkable things (as if they couldn’t). Probably the most famous one is about David Farragut, who was commanding a naval vessel at the age of 14. What about Sir Richard Branson, high school dropout, of Virgin Airlines and record stores fame, who started his first successful business at 16 and went on to become a billionaire? Or Mark Zukerberg, who dreamed up and founded Facebook when he was 20. Stories of brilliant and accomplished youngsters are everywhere. But do we celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of the aged? Rarely.
Here are but a few of many: Giuseppe Verdi ((1813-1901) came out of retirement (he composed Otello at 74) at the age of 80 to write Falstaff, one of the most exuberant and penetrating—and funny—comedies of human foibles and young love ever written. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote some of his greatest works after the age of 70, and near the end of his life (at 82) he was carrying on a lively and influential correspondence with Mohandas Ghandi. Then there was Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), who quit writing operas at age 37 and more or less gave up writing music until he was in his 70s. He then composed a series of witty and entertaining chamber pieces that he referred to as Sins of My Old Age. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) created many of his most colourful and revolutionary paintings in his late 80s and early 90s. His creative genius simply never stopped. And if you ever want to hear some ravishingly beautiful music—written by a man in his 80s—listen to the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss (1864-1949). The conductor Arturo Toscannini (1867-1957) even in his 80s could terrify the musicians in an orchestra into playing better than they ever thought they could. Elliot Carter, born 1908, still astonishes the musical world with his dense and complicated solo, chamber, and vocal music. There was a National Film Board movie I saw once about a 100-year-old woman who went around playing the piano to entertain the “old” folks in the rest home. It just didn’t occur to her that getting old would somehow stop you from doing anything you wanted to do. And don’t forget that David Suzuki is 74, showing no signs of quitting.
What needs to change?
First of all, let’s stop of thinking of age as a disease that needs to be treated with medications, meals on wheels, and condescending attentions. I am not minimizing the physical problems that seem to accumulate with age, like stiff joints, frequent trips to the washroom, dyspepsia, insomnia, squinting at the small print, and having to ask people to repeat everything. These, like Mr. Johnson’s sore back, are annoyances for sure but hardly catastrophic or worth medicating (with the inevitable side-effects). Such minor irritations can be ignored as long as we have something going on in our lives. It’s like stubbing your toe in the midst of an exciting soccer game; you would ignore the pain and carry on.
At the same time there are serious ailments that do require intervention. Thank heaven, these are available. I hasten to point out, however, that serious illness, injury, and chronic physical failings can occur at any stage of life. As we age, we are in danger of becoming obsessed with bodily functions and impending disease and inevitable death. With a vigorous mental and emotional life, I suspect that we can take most of these in our stride. For a story about someone whose life is so full that he carries on in the face of death, read about Chuck Davis, age 74: http://bit.ly/cj1gyH [Chuck Davis died on November 20, 2010, not long after this was written. His book was completed by colleagues and was in bookkstores one year later.]
How about not categorizing people by age? By classifying people as children or seniors, we discount their abilities to do anything of value or to effect any kind of change. Children are supposed to be in school learning that they must depend on someone else to tell them what to do, and seniors are defined as being “retired” or no longer leading productive working lives. It is unfortunate that for many people work means holding a job that is unfulfilling and boring. Retirement is viewed as liberation from work, an opportunity to pursue entertainment, leisure, and inactivity. Alas, these soon prove to be unfulfilling and boring, too, and life loses lustre and excitement. Why not think of retirement—at whatever age one chooses to take it—as an opportunity to do other, more fulfilling, kinds of work? Just ask yourself, what can I do to make the world a better place? and you’ll find more than enough to keep you interested, busy, and involved. Just think of all the things that you don’t know about, all the music you haven’t heard, the books you haven’t read, the social ills that need to be cured. Of course we are aware that our time is slipping away, but just think of how much there is still to be done. When the great Canadian broadcaster Lister Sinclair, who died in 2006 at the age of 85, was asked what he would like to see inscribed on his tombstone, he said, “He died learning.”
What should we do
I know that there are numerous programs, in community centres and in seniors’ centres, that are provided for the aging. Most of these offer interesting things for people to do, but like school for kids, it’s all preplanned and led by someone probably younger than the participants. I know this is not always true, but most community centre programs are run by well-meaning and intelligent people, like the experts in the video, who are in their 30s and 40s. I notice that the words like “gentle” and “low impact” occur frequently in descriptions of these programs. Maybe “rough” and “high impact” would be off-putting, but the words that are used suggest an attitude about old people. Offerings like Cribbage, Bridge, Scrabble, Chair Massage, Reflexology, and Seniors’ Exercise, not to mention the ubiquitous notion of having “fun” suggest limited interests and abilities. It’s not that these activities might not be of interest and value, it’s just the reiteration of terms of condescension that keep hammering home inabilities and weaknesses.
At the risk of rambling on forever, I offer a few suggestions:
1. Find the seniors in your community who are so busy that they don’t have time to join in on “seniors’ activities.” (If you want something done, ask a busy person.) Ask them what they are doing and figure out how to get them involved.
2. Have docent tours of the Art Gallery for people of all ages, not just school kids. Maybe invite older people to join the kids’ tour.
3. Involve the Health Arts Society in your community programming. http://www.healtharts.org/
4. Bring young and old people together to work on a serious project, like dealing with addictions, homelessness, or political action in your community.
5. Bring together a group of people (of any age) facing terminal illness. Talk about how they are dealing with the inevitable. Get someone like Chuck Davis to join the group.
6. Talk frankly and openly about suicide.
7. Let’s not ignore and deny the fact that the older we get the closer we come to dying. How do we cope with that? What are we thinking about dying? What are we going to do between now and then?
8. Have some young artists and musicians show and talk about their work.
9. Get a bunch of active seniors to search out the homebound, lonely, and alone. Get them involved in something or respect their desire to be left alone.
10. Show movies, play serious music, and look at art that is seen as challenging and difficult. Talk about what the creators of the works are thinking and doing.
11. Read books and poems; talk about them.
12. Read books to kids at the library or at school.
And never forget Robert Louis Stevenson’s little rhyme:
THE WORLD IS SO FULL OF A NUMBER OF THINGS
I’M SURE WE SHOULD ALL BE AS HAPPY AS KINGS.