Terms of endearment

“My advice to the young med students going into this program is to think about that picture and put themselves instead with something interesting between them and their aged client.”

“Get well soon, Jill darling,” I heard myself saying recently. And before I could process what seemed strange about that, I had a phone call confirming someone’s visit later that week. “I am looking forward to seeing you,” my proposed visitor said. “And I will look forward to seeing you, too, darling,” I said. What does this mean, this sudden use of “darling” in my old age? I can’t remember using the endearment for anyone but lovers and grandchildren in the past. What has, I wondered, got into me? Does vocabulary, like many other things, change with old age? It is easy to obsess about such changes, but luckily for me, I had ordered from my library a book by Virginia Ironside who has now become the latest guru for my old age. By page 13 she was right on to this “darling” business and assuring me that I was not alone. Having heard her fictional self call her new young lodger “darling” on almost first meeting, she wrote in her diary. ‘This is another curious sign of ageing. I find myself addressing everyone as “sweetie” or “darling” – and, even odder, meaning it. It is something I would never have done when I was young, in the days when the only people who received a “darling” were men I loved.’ With people her own age, she feels an equal, but with younger people she feels like a parent with caring and kindly feelings “that are lovely to experience after spending most of life feeling cross-patchy and hard-done-by”. I like this woman. I can’t recommend too highly to Third Agers her two fictional diaries: No! I Don’t Want to Join a Bookclub and No! I Don’t Need Reading Glasses (Fig Tree/Penguin). She is not a grumpy old lady. She is even quite young by some third age standards – in her 60s – but relishing old age and free travel and a feeling of freedom that she has never had before. There is truth and seriousness there, too. An old lover loses his memory; a dear friend loses his life. Friends do odd things and change – or don’t change at all and thus infuriate her. She fears losing her only son and grandchild to another country and is outwardly brave, but truly miserable in her plans for coping. She is fearless as she never was in youth and middle age, breaking up a dinner party because she speaks some truths about old age to the “you are only as old as you feel/ I am 70 years young!” bores. Now I call her Darling Virginia, and would ring her for advice if I could. At some stage I had a little twinge that her old age was spookily fortunate and illness free: she even opts for a facelift. But our Virginia has come out to her readers since publishing her fictional diaries, revealing that she has a colostomy bag and manages it sensibly as what she has to put up with as graciously as she can, to avoid a nastier fate. Read her: she will cheer you up and make you think about a lot of things you might have been pushing away from your consciousness. They just don’t get it. How can we help them? Before me is a newspaper story and picture about university medical students getting firsthand experience in aged care in Adelaide. Good idea. The picture shows a young student standing, but bending solicitously over a seated 82-year-old woman. The young woman holds the right wrist of the old woman. Her left arm is around the old woman’s shoulder. Both have calm, sweet smiles. What is wrong with this picture? Well don’t put me in it for a start. All this solicitude; almost like lovers. You can imagine the young woman saying (though I bet she didn’t): “There, there.” But the old woman doesn’t look as though she’s whimpering. She looks ready for a really interesting conversation (which may have happened after the photographer left). So why this patronising, sentimental depiction of the old and the saccharine treatment of a young professional woman? It could be a ghastly Victorian painting called “Spring and Autumn Love.” Yuk. This kind of thing has to stop, or at least be laughed at, if the aged are going to maintain their personhood and respect in our society. My advice to the young med students going into this program is to think about that picture and put themselves instead with something interesting between them and their aged client. A book, a plant, a photograph, even a piece of embroidery. Something that shows the old person DOES something and is not just the recipient of caring smiles and tender handclasps.

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