12 July, 1999
I have just returned from a 1400-mile round trip attending the funeral of a dear aunt who died in an 'Old Folks' Home' at the age of 95. I last saw her 'alive' when I visited her in the same 'Home' five years ago. At that time, she no longer recognised me and never uttered a single word in response to my awkward attempts to communicate with her. The voluble, energetic aunt I knew and loved had gone away, leaving nothing but a ghastly caricature in the form of a barely breathing collection of skin and bones.
That my aunt's heart and lungs continued to function for a further five years in this semi-comatose state says much for the dedication of the kindly members of staff who cared for her and the medication that kept infection at bay. However, I cannot help but wonder if it might not have been a greater kindness to refrain from administering antibiotics and let an 'old folks' friend' such as pneumonia release her immortal spirit from the prison of her mortal frame.
After the funeral, I visited two dear friends of long-standing and another aunt of whom I was particularly fond. The first old friend, whose body is approaching its ninety-third birthday, still resides in the house in which he has lived nearly all his life. He is cared for by his niece and her family. Although frail, and suffering from Parkinson's disease, he can still carry on an intelligent conversation which is not confined to reminiscences about 'matters long ago'. He clearly benefits from the loving care of members of his family and frequent visits from neighbours he knows well.
I found what was left of my second old friend in a 'home' run very efficiently by uniformed professional staff. He was completely comatose in bed in a scrupulously clean, neat and bright room attended by a daughter who had come half way round the world to see a father who was no longer able to appreciate her presence. My heart went out to her and to her sister who took it in turns to stay by their father's bedside vainly attempting to convey in some way their continuing love and affection. His death two days later must have come as a happy release not only for his immortal spirit but also for the spirits of his family and friends who are now free to give full expression to their grief and resume the reins of their own active lives sensitised and spiritually enriched by the experience of bereavement.
My second aunt is aged 92. Since the death of her husband, she has for the last four or five years resided in the same Old Folks' Home as the aunt whose funeral I was attending. We had been very close and fond of each other but, although she was able to talk in a disjointed fashion about trivial things in our immediate vicinity, she did not seem recognise me, gave no sign that she understood when I talked of her own sons, and apparently had no comprehension of her sister's demise. Unable to communicate with the lovely lady I had known, it was a relief to me to leave her and get back to the world of the truly living.
These poignant experiences and others of a similar nature leave me acutely uneasy about the way in which our society treats its old people. In The Family and the Household I discuss some practical ideas for healing the chasm that seems to have opened up between the very old and the young. All I shall do now is invite you to reflect upon three quotations which may help us find alternative solutions which are simultaneously humane and free from sentimentality.
The first quotation is from 'The Latest Decalogue' by Arthur Hugh Clough:
"Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive
Officiously to keep alive."
The second is from 'In Search of Stones' by M Scott Peck:
"When I think of myself I do not essentially think of my body, nor do I think of Lily as a body. I think of her uncapturable spirit, so uniquely different from my own equally uncapturable one. No, we are more spirit than flesh, and my own hope is for a day when I do not have to carry this corpus around anymore, when I can travel freely with neither luggage nor jet lag."
The third is from the 'Economy of Human Life' attributed to Pharaoh Amenhotep IV or some of his successors:
"Think not the longest life the happiest; that which is best employed doth man the most honour; himself shall rejoice after death in the advantages of it."