The month of October, the “golden month”, the month when the last fruits ripen, is a tranquil month, suitable for autumnal contemplation and for taking a well-deserved rest from the labours of the outdoor year. In terms of the human lifespan, October falls into the fourth season, after childhood, youth, middle age; it is the month corresponding to the age of the senior, the older person. Lines and colours become sharper, the contours of a life lived, achievements and failures of a lifetime, become clearer, more defined. There’s nothing much we can do about anything now.
The age of the “senior”, the age of retirement, has not been with us for many years yet. In olden days, before the beginning of the 20th century, the aging man and woman worked until s/he could no longer do so, until s/he no longer had the physical or mental strength. The aging man would pass on his farm, his fields, his business, his trade, to his son and the farmer’s wife and housewife handed over keys and responsibility for the household to the daughter or daughter-in-law. The elders would, however, remain with and in the family, needed still for advice, help with children and lighter work, thereby remaining active and retaining a sense of self-worth, a confirmation of their relevance, terms nobody would have known or used a hundred years ago.
With the advent of retirement age, a retirement pension, therefore a fixed date for leaving our active working life – good as these achievements are – we also gradually invented a need for alternative employment and a filling of our leisure time, particularly, as we in the West all live so much longer than we used to do.
In the old days, particularly in rural environments, it was common for three generations to live together under one roof, or at least in the same village. Before machines took over much of our work, when we grew our own food, washed our own clothes and scrubbed our own doorsteps, there was always enough work for everybody within the family, house and garden, when the daily bread-winning job was done.
Of course, not everything in the garden was endlessly rosy, far from it. People living together in close proximity has always caused problems, for all parties.
Still, grandfather and grandmother were of great importance to the children of the family, taking care of them, entertaining them, teaching them, telling stories, comforting, consoling them, when the need arose; tasks which are too often left to TV, computers and noisy games today.
A hundred years ago the older person was, much more than we can even imagine today, part of the continuous chain of generations; hence their adherence to what they knew, had learned throughout their lives. When asked “why” or “since when” their answer was “that’s how it’s always been”. And they’d stick to that. “Age and wisdom” are not always synonymous but there is no doubt that experience had taught them well.
The term “leisure activities” too was unknown a hundred years ago. There were no organised entertainments or sports for the elderly rural population. They had time to be aware of and in tune with the changing seasons, for instance; to watch both crops and children grow. They knew of “all things between heaven and earth”. During long summer evenings there was time to sit on the doorstep and talk; the women knitting and the men maybe smoking a leisurely pipe.
And when they grew too old to be of use they were allowed to live out their remaining days in the bosom of their family, accepted as a part of the rhythm of life.
I have been prompted to these musings by the sad spectacle of an old lady of my acquaintance, a dear friend, being transported to a care home by her family.
I realise that her failing health is making this move necessary but I am still wondering if we are not too ready to put our old people away too readily.