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EmilyGransnet (GNHQ) Wed 15-Oct-14 13:28:41

The invisible elderly

Why do our perceptions of people change as they age? Are they not the same people just because they have a few more lines on their faces? Author Nicci Gerrard discusses the invisibility of the elderly and that strange moment when she looked in the mirror and didn't recognise the older lady looking back at her.

Nicci Gerrard

The Twilight Hour

Posted on: Wed 15-Oct-14 13:28:41


Lead photo

Nicci Gerrard

Not so long ago, I was charging along a narrow aisle of a large department store, on an errand, late, harassed, hot, grumpy and unkempt, and I met a middle-aged woman coming running towards me. I noticed that she looked a bit like a demented crow; she had a gaunt face and lines around her eyes and on her face was an anxious expression. I think her shirt was wrongly buttoned. She was obviously in a hurry. I put up a hand in apology and she put her hand up as well – and I realised that she was me. I was looking at myself in a mirror. I was that demented crow.

So this was how I looked to strangers when I was running through a department store on an errand: not slim and poised and purposeful but scrawny, worried and slightly unhinged. It was a grim and hilarious revelation. We think the world sees us more or less the way we see ourselves, but in fact there’s a radical mismatch. The older we get, the more the gap between our own sense of our self and the world’s widens. How many of us look in the mirror and think: but that’s not me, not the real me, the one I carry round inside myself.

My gallant and fabulous mother is in her eighties. She is registered blind, has had multiple strokes and cancer; she has been an invalid for decades because of botched medical treatment for a bad back; she has arthritic hands and swollen ankles. But she thinks of herself as young and has the spirit of someone in her twenties (or maybe younger), someone endlessly ardent and hopeful, setting out on life’s journey. When strangers meet her, they look past of her complicated, resilient, stubborn character and what they see is her age and her frailty. They admire her because she is old. They no longer see the person that she is, so brimful of ambition and desire.

The older we get, the more the gap between our own sense of our self and the world's widens. How many of us look in the mirror and think: but that's not me, not the real me, the one I carry round inside myself.

My beloved father has always been a mild-mannered, courteous, private person, very stoical and very sweet-tempered, but also a practical joker and an eccentric inventor of devices to make my mother’s life easier. He was always proud of being a doctor – but now when people meet him, they bend down to him and call him dear and ask how ‘we’ are doing, as if even the correct pronoun has been lost to him and the singular erased. Or they don’t bend down at all – they talk to me and my siblings, or his carer. The nurses and doctors I have loved in hospital – where he has spent much time recently – have been the ones who sit by his bed and call him ‘Dr Gerrard’, who see beyond his wrinkles and his white hair and his vulnerability, and are respectful and attentive.

Sometimes I catch myself saying that my mother ‘was’ beautiful, when of course she still is. Or my father ‘was’ clever and kind - as if the old become like ghosts in their own life. I hear people talking about their parents, using words like ‘naughty’ or ‘silly’, like small children. (In the same way, people will often say ‘I love children’ and ‘I love old people’, stripping them of individuality and slotting them into a simple category.)

If we are lucky, we will become old. And yet our culture denies old age; we talk of ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. In my novel, The Twilight Hour, I wanted to make what is invisible visible again. Through the central character, 94-year-old Eleanor, I intended to show a whole vivid and richly complicated life: Eleanor is old, but she contains all the selves she has ever been – the stubborn child, the independent young woman, the woman in love, the teacher, the mother, the grandmother. Eleanor stands for all of us: we all want to be recognised, to be seen as individual, human and unique. We can start by the way that we look at the world, seeing others the way we want to be seen ourselves.

*The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard is published by Michael Joseph on 23rd October 2014, £7.99 paperback or £4.99 ebook*

By Nicci Gerrard

Twitter: @gransnet

jinglbellsfrocks Wed 15-Oct-14 13:37:38

"Eleanor is old, but she contains all the selves she has ever been"

Yes. That is so true. Sounds like a good book.

FlicketyB Thu 16-Oct-14 07:37:58

How far do we, the elderly, collude in our own invisibility? Yes, for older people like Nicci Gerard's parents it is not easy for them to be assertive and be recognised but what does Nicci, who presumably is over 50, or any of us do when our parents or ourselves are ignored and talked down to? Surely we should be prepared to say to someone; 'Do not patronise me/my parents. Speak to them/me directly in a tone of voice you would use with someone else'. This can be done in a polite and courteous manner.

We should do the same ourselves when overlooked or ignored in shops, restaurants etc. If we asserted ourselves other people would take notice of us.

When her local hospital made a muddle over her treatment earlier this year DD, aged 40, was immediately on the phone to the hospital and her consultant. Within days the problem was sorted and she received an apology. There is nothing to stop us acting like that, but so often we are indulgent, understanding, make excuses and get ignored. Whose fault is it?

gillybob Thu 16-Oct-14 08:26:18

I totally agree FlicketyB my parents have lost all confidence and just seem to plod along going with the flow. They have been treat appallingly by bus drivers,hospital staff, ambulance drivers, shop staff and most recently by a large hotel chain during a weekend visit. Sometimes I could scream with frustration but my mum is severely disabled and my dad just wants a quiet life so they just put up and shut up. Mind you the hotel chain didn't know what had hit them once I got involved. I wouldn't have done it for myself but I hate to see vulnerable people being badly treat. angry

gillybob Thu 16-Oct-14 08:30:01

Oops posted too soon. I meant to add that my grandma on the other hand has got it all off to a fine art. She is anything but invisible. In fact she is VERY visible and heaven help anyone who ignores her!

Riverwalk Thu 16-Oct-14 09:01:10

Care to give us the details of the large hotel chain gilly ?

Name and shame.

Marmight Thu 16-Oct-14 10:04:20

I'm not sure when one stops being 'me' and becomes 'old'? I find myself saying to younger sales people, when flustered or not finding the right change immediately - 'oh I'm just getting old' or when getting confused when discussing complicated banking details on the phone 'oh, you'll have to excuse me, I'm not as young as I was, I find all this very complicated', when I know that I am NOT old - yet. Sometimes I feel I am drifting into being old, long before I need to shock I am, btw, 66 on the outside and still about 17 in my head wink
I hate all that talking over elderly people's heads as if their brains have disintegrated. My Aunt is 99, fairly frail, but sharp as a tack upstairs, and takes no prisoners!

gillybob Thu 16-Oct-14 10:23:47

I would love to Riverwalk but having made an official complaint and met with the Chief Executive I received a full refund on their behalf. The deal understanding was that I would not badmouth them on Trip Advisor (I threatened) or any other public forum. They have also invited them back next year (at no charge) so I know they have taken the complaint extremely seriously. The sad thing is that arranging the dialysis patient transport to/from dialysis and hotel was a nightmare to organize but it went very well indeed. Its just a pity that the hotel stay itself spoilt what should have been a lovely break for them.

Riverwalk Thu 16-Oct-14 12:17:30

I understand gilly and well done for taking it to chief exec. level and getting a full refund.

When things go wrong we can be forgiving if the problem is addressed and changes implemented, as seems to be the case.

Pity about the gagging order!

Cagsy Thu 16-Oct-14 14:46:57

Well done gillybob, as you say Riverwalk, to err is human but the way the complaint is dealt with says a lot about an organisation.

FlicketyB Thu 16-Oct-14 15:22:26

Well, I am in my 70s and I have never ever use age as a reason or excuse for getting confused about anything. That only enhances the image that older people are to be disregarded. People of all ages fumble for change or get confused about details on the phone, blaming our age for anything is collusion.

Of course when people are disabled and frail and struggling then it is easier to go with the flow but it is up to those who are older but not disabled to be assertive and firm themselves and by so doing protect those who cannot protect themselves.

grove1234 Thu 16-Oct-14 15:32:56

I love getting older treated lovingly as a slightly dotty person given masses of help ,just love it
age 72 female self-employed property developer .

goldengirl Thu 16-Oct-14 15:54:48

I agree with FlicketyB that we can be our own worst enemy. How did we treat older people when we were younger? How are we presenting ourselves to younger people now? How do we refer to ourselves? And how do we think of older people ourselves? If we are negative in our thoughts then surely it gets passed along.

I do feel a bit doddery at times which zaps my confidence a bit but I'm lucky to have young friends and acquaintances who seem to see past age and treat me 'normally'.

Perhaps we should be more of an example of what older people are really like and not be quiet about it; especially if we feel patronised at any time

FlicketyB Thu 16-Oct-14 16:42:20

but grove1234 what happens when they start patronising you when they help you because they see you as less than human, disregarding you when it is important that you are listened to and need not to be treated like a sweetly dotty old lady?

thatbags Thu 16-Oct-14 21:43:39

Does anyone ever really look in a mirror and suddenly notice their looks have aged? Really? It's hard to believe anyone other than someone who only looks in a mirror once in thirty years or so could be so ignorant of the changes age brings.

...unless they live in some state of denial.

I honestly don't understand this attitude and I think it is really weird. I have never felt it. I know I look older now than I did however many years ago. I expect to look older. Isn't that just being realistic?

And all this stuff about not seeing people's characters just because they are old. Repeating that ad nauseam is what's patronising because it is assuming that people are so shallow.

Galen Thu 16-Oct-14 21:53:31

I know I'm old. But having met you Bags you look like a teenager to me.

Galen Thu 16-Oct-14 21:55:02

And I look old!
But it doesn't bother me as it's just nature!

thatbags Thu 16-Oct-14 22:29:32

"But it doesn't bother me as it's just nature!"

Exactly! We should stop bothering and being so bothered by age and just get onwith it is what I'm trying to say.

thatbags Thu 16-Oct-14 22:30:04

by aging, I should say

janeainsworth Thu 16-Oct-14 22:53:59

I don't get it either.
My MiL is 92, and I wouldn't dream of speaking to her any differently from how I did when I first met her 45 years ago.
It works in reverse too. If you expect people to treat you as a second-class citizen, they probably will.

FlicketyB Fri 17-Oct-14 10:58:24

I can never understand this obsession with aging. Why worry, even my DGC (7 & 4) are unrecognisable compared with how they looked at birth!!
How we change as we get older is governed by so many factors, genes, health, the lives we have chosen to live or have had forced upon us.

I am a second-hand rose and love old houses, old furniture, old cars. All look better and last longer if well looked after and maintained, but you cannot hide the fact that anybody looking at any of them can see that they are old - and this is much of their charm.

In fact nothing ages, women in particular, than constantly worrying about ageing and constantly trying to look younger. The DM is fond of running articles about women looking ten years younger as the result of all sorts of ridiculous stratagems. Looking at the before and after pictures they still look the same age, the 'after' picture just makes them look like prunes pretending they are plums again because they have been soaked in boiling water.

goldengirl Fri 17-Oct-14 16:00:17

I think the media is partially to blame and opportunists. A lot of money is made out of anti ageing creams and the like and I'm sure I'm not alone when I look at makeup in the odd magazine or newspaper! If we didn't buy then it would fade away but it's been going since at least the time of the Pharaohs.

Newspapers also like to quote ages and use names like 'pensioner' or 'grandma' and then there are names like silver surfer etc. Old age is being dinned into the younger generation in a negative or patronising way. We shouldn't allow this to happen'

thatbags Fri 17-Oct-14 18:05:25

I don't find the terms pensioner, grandma/granny or silver surfer any more negative or patronising than the terms paid worker, mother or internet user. All they do that is different is recognise that those terms refer to older rather than younger people, which is true. If we stopped "reacting" as if such terms were insults and as if being older rather than younger were something to be ashamed of, there'd be no issue.

In other words, we are the ones making this into an issue, not the people we presume to say are negative about us and patronising.


jinglbellsfrocks Fri 17-Oct-14 18:18:50

I think grove12134 has got a very good attitude there. grin

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 17-Oct-14 18:19:18

sorry for the extra 1 there