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Beloved Old Age and What to Do About it: Margery Allingham's the Relay Paperback – 30 Jun 2016
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Ms Jones conveys the crises of old age with the striking image of ‘a shipwreck in slow motion’ and few of us need to be reminded of how challenging it must be to witness such a process at first hand. Indeed, Allingham warned that ‘the problem of old people was one which must be approached with more than haphazard goodwill’.
The subject is distressing and, even though there are plenty of tender, touching moments and even injections of humour by both writers, in essence this is an acceptance of some painful and inescapable truths, an analysis of the interactions between those suffering from the condition and their carers, and an attempt to propose approaches which see the whole process in a broader context. More than that, the perspectives of the two writers, separated by some fifty years, chart society’s changing attitudes to old age (as well as some which persist), and illustrate very starkly how much further we need to go not only in the provision of care but also in our understanding of the dynamics of the relationships involved.
Although she does refer to the specifics of her own situation as part of a caring solution, there is a deliberate detachment in Allingham’s account. She seeks to discard stereotypes and proposes structured relationships and solutions based on two-way processes. In order to help her analysis, she uses generalising terms – ‘old people’, ‘Care’ (her word for carer). What makes the book work so well, however, is the way the clear-minded analysis is then peopled and personalised by Ms Jones’s reflections on it and her day to day experiences with her mother. Both writers are telling painful truths and yet they manage to penetrate beyond the stereotypical image of a sad bewildered sufferer and a helpless, frustrated ‘Care’. In Ms Jones’s exchanges with her mother she feels that she’s ‘transferring scraps of her identity across to me’. Allingham warns that ‘Old people sometimes take lives without noticing it. It is up to everybody to protect his own.’ The concept of what ‘home’ means to sufferers is examined. What is it? The Almighty? The place where they grew up? Some other part of their life? Death? Or do they just want to get back to being who they used to be? When brains work less efficiently, when memories vanish or merge, normal reality offers no answers or remedies.
The book will touch you but it will also set you thinking, make you question some of the assumptions you make about age, personality, inter-generational communication. The writing is beautiful, often very simple, and the two voices draw you into a complex counterpoint, present you with a universal situation which is personalised by little memories, touches, moments of lucidity and, above all, the cruel paradox of how love can generate so much pain.
We are living longer, of that there is no doubt. Even those families lucky enough to have money, or insurance, or big houses and understanding networks of relatives and friends will come up against some of the sad facts of this process/progress. And up against the horrible emotional dilemmas, the frightening decisions that have to be made. This book might open your eyes, but it will surely strengthen your resolve. It shines with humanity, and hope.
I know of nobody, except the very young, for whom it is not, or will be, essential reading. It's beautiful.
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