A CONVERSATION WITH MARGARET MOURANT
You mightn’t think that growing old takes much skill. And of course, you’d be right … if you regard growing old as nothing more than blowing out candles on very large birthday cakes!
But if you’re thinking more of ageing with grace, maturing with dignity, accepting the challenges and enjoying the rewards of the senior years … then growing old can be a very demanding process indeed.
Few Kiwis knew this better than (the late) Margaret Mourant, whose name was long associated with Grapevine. For many years she contributed a very popular column – ‘Counsellor’s Casebook’ – in which she wrote with freshness and frankness about the real people and the real problems she encountered in her work.
Two decades ago, over a cuppa in her Auckland home, we invited Margaret to talk about growing old: What is it? How to do it in style? And when does it start?
MARGARET: Well, it’s not very helpful to stick a random number on it. Some people are never ‘old’. Others are old long before they achieve an actual number of years which society thinks of as ‘old’. They’ll say, “Oh I’m 60 …” (or 50 or 70, whatever the number). “I’m really getting old now!” And they MAKE it true by living that way! They’re old because they’ve decided they’re old.
On the other hand, there are people who live with enormous difficulties – health problems, usually – who NEVER seem to be old. Yes, they’re limited in what they can do. But they’re NOT limited in the way they think, in how they observe other people, in the enjoyment they get out of life.
GRAPEVINE: Society often links the words ‘old’ and ‘infirm’ – as if they automatically belong together.
MARGARET: That’s true. And sometimes they do – but certainly not always, and not inevitably. As people age they tend to slow down, of course. They have to adapt. Yes, ageing changes your life … but it doesn’t necessarily RUIN it!
I sometimes catch myself doing the very things I criticised others for a moment ago. Every now and then, I think of myself as ‘old’ and get bogged down in all the difficulties. But mostly (I think) I manage to stay young in heart …
GRAPEVINE: Now, we happen to know how old you are – we were invited to a special birthday party thrown in your honour. But are Grapevine readers allowed in on the secret?
MARGARET: I’m 80! (Chuckles …) I have my fair share of limitations. And I guess it’s brought home to me the fact that, to maintain quality-of-life, we need the capacity to change with the times. When you lose one thing, you have to find a substitute – and that’s not always easy! That’s where the ‘wimps’ thing comes in. Old age can be a good time, but it comes at a cost! It takes courage. You have to move with the times without losing yourself.
GRAPEVINE: You’re right when you say that’s not easy. Most of us have met elderly people who do nothing but mutter and moan: “Everything’s changing … the world’s gone crazy …”
MARGARET: Sadly, that’s true. But it’s also true that younger people just don’t understand what it’s like being in an old person’s shoes. They may be nice, helpful, and understanding, but they’ve never been there – and it’s a different country!
As a result, there’s a certain loneliness for the old person. And if they’re not getting out as much as they used to – if they can’t use the car any more, and most of their friends are still mobile or even still working – that loneliness can cut deep.
You’ve got to find extra inner resources. You have to discover how to be alone but not lonely. And that can be a struggle. Some people just cave in … give up … sit down and wait to die.
Maybe they’ve had to move to a home, and didn’t want to, and they’re pining for their old place. Maybe they’re living with a lot of regrets: regrets over things they wished they’d done, but didn’t – or regrets over stuff they did, but shouldn’t have done! It’s easy to dwell on these things …
GRAPEVINE: You like to divide the latter years of life into three stages – Young-Old-Age … Middle-Old-Age … and Old-Old-Age. What’s this all about?
MARGARET: Well, it begins with what we usually call middle-age. For me, that’s ‘Young-Old-Age’ …
You’ve got your house (if you’re ever going to get one). You’ve maybe had some success and satisfaction in a career. Your children (if you’ve had any) are off your hands – or almost so. And you’ve sort of come to a plateau …
You’ve struggled to get there, and now – here you are! And you start asking questions, like, “Is this all there is?”
You realise you’re not young anymore. And that can bring on lots of changes – including some very destructive ones.
GRAPEVINE: Such as …?
MARGARET: Well, an affair – the last chance for a fling. Or partners getting out of time with each other.
GRAPEVINE: Out of time? How do you mean?
MARGARET: Oh, one partner might be quite contented with the way things are. They’ve raised their kids, paid off the mortgage (or most of it), have their hobbies, and can now go on the big holiday. “What more could you possibly want?” But the other partner might suddenly find all this terribly restrictive: “I’m only half alive! I want to do something different – I want to break out of this bind! There’s gotta be more to life!”
It’s a very common midlife scenario: one wants to dig in and enjoy the status quo – while the other wants to break out and change absolutely everything! And the contented partner may be frightened to death …
GRAPEVINE: So that early period can be a dangerous age?
MARGARET: Yes. But it can also be a kind of golden age – possibly one of the best times in your life! You’re still fit – fit but free. You may be retired, or at least working part-time or not so hard. You’re got time to do new things.
NICE OR NASTY?
Many people view this stage of life very positively – as a wonderful opportunity and a chance for new directions. Others, sadly, are just plain scared: “Where’s all this leading?” “Am I on the slippery downhill slope?”
They worry and fret and refuse to really live the life they’ve actually got.
GRAPEVINE: The next stage would be ‘Middle-Old-Age’ – right? You sometimes use the term ‘middlesence’ to describe the sorts of issues we might’ve had in adolescence but never really worked through. Are you suggesting these things crop up again?
MARGARET: They seem to, yes. Some people try to re-live unfinished issues from their past – they try to go back and pick up where they left off. And that can sometimes prove very damaging.
You see it, often, with couples who married young. They were greatly in love … thought the world of each other (at first!) … and drew together for physical connections, each thinking the other was magnificent. But it didn’t really work. And now, here they are in midlife, realising that each wasn’t quite what the other thought. So dissatisfaction dawns, and grows, and niggles …
GRAPEVINE: For both partners? Or might one partner still be quite happy?
MARGARET: That’s very common. And the other can be quite UNhappy. They may agree to separate. Or they may decide to work things through, in the hope of coming closer to the ideal they sought. Or they’ll get bitter and withdrawn.
The saddest thing is, they often have no idea where the trouble’s springing from.
In ‘Middle-Old-Age’ there are lots of issues lying on the shelf waiting to rear up again. Things one gave up, perhaps, and later wants. Things they never had. Things that may lead people to go through life feeling slightly cheated.
And, of course, it’s fine to bring many of those things out in the open. Maybe you always wanted to paint, or do craftwork, or learn to dance … well, now you can have a go! But sometimes, they’re inappropriate: things like unresolved sexual desires that your partner may not want (or be able) to provide.
It’s that hankering after things that are immature or unreasonable that I call ‘middlesence’.
GRAPEVINE: And ‘Old-Old-Age’ – what’s that? Frailty? Helplessness? Wheelchairs and the like?
MARGARET: Correct. The focus in this stage is mainly physical. There’s an emphasis on health – and that loneliness I spoke about.
This is that time-of-life when you start losing things. And losing PEOPLE – especially, perhaps, your spouse, or others who are close. It’s a time-of-life when you’re NOT so free – when things happen to you that you don’t have much control over.
You’re still free, however, to choose a NEW sort of freedom … a new way of being free.
GRAPEVINE: So it’s not as grim as it sounds?
MARGARET: No, it doesn’t have to be grim. You look for things to replace what’s slipping away … you concentrate on the satisfaction you get from making those replacements … and every victory (no matter how trivial it seems to a younger person) becomes something to celebrate.
I mean, I got quite a kick out of passing my Driver’s License test – you know, the one they give you when you hit 80! For me, that was a little victory …
GRAPEVINE: Retirement has always been the big ‘gateway’ in the ageing story, hasn’t it?
MARGARET: Oh yes! But the idea of retirement has changed – things aren’t the same today as they were a few years ago.
In the past, people used to have one main career. They’d soldier away at it till they reached the magic age, and then retire. These days, we’re not restricted to ONE career – we can cast around, take a course at a technical institute, join a club, try out something totally new. And that can give us a whole new lease on life (as well as a little bit of extra money) – which is a real improvement.
Today, we can modify – move from full-time to part-time employment perhaps. Most of us can ‘tail off’ more easily if we want to – rather than banging up against the inevitable cliff-face of total retirement!
That sudden stop used to be pretty terrible – especially for those whose work was their life, whose lives were measured by what they did.
GRAPEVINE: It still happens, doesn’t it. The man who’s been totally immersed in his job, and has looked forward to retirement as a kind of endless holiday. But when he gets there, and the holiday wears off, and he’s no longer needed by his old firm, he loses all sense of identity and value – and often curls up his toes within a couple of years.
MARGARET: Yes – to be too involved in your job, so that when you stop you lose something of yourself, is sad. But I think many younger people now are more aware of not submerging themselves in their work – not equating what they do with who they are.
Curiously, it’s more often men who fall prey to that than women.
GRAPEVINE: Why is that?
MARGARET: I think it’s because women generally have more facets to their lives. They’re more flexible. They operate on more levels – so if something drops out, they have a wider range of interests and activities to fall back on.
GOING UP – COMING DOWN?
What often happens around retirement age is that the husband WANTS to retire – but she isn’t ready to stop at all. She’s on the way up, while he’s on the way down – and that can spell trouble for couples!
He’s had a tough grind over the last few years and he’s just tired of the whole thing – but, very often, she’s just getting ready to FLY! She probably only re-started a career after the children had grown up, so she might want to stay very involved.
GRAPEVINE: So why shouldn’t she? I mean, you’d think we men would want freedom for our partners?
MARGARET: There are lots of possible reasons. He might just be a control freak – he likes to think he’s the boss, and feels threatened by a wife who is still active and doing what he no longer can. Or maybe there’s a bit of jealousy – perhaps he resents her being the breadwinner, and feels he’s failing as the provider. That’s always been his role.
GRAPEVINE: Okay. What are some better ways of dealing with old age? How can we avoid these pitfalls and cope better with the changes that come as we grow older?
MARGARET: Well, life is a journey – and we are different people at different times. At each stage, we go through a process. And that’s what old age is – a PROCESS.
Regrettably, many people just view it as ‘going downhill’ – something to be fought or resisted or denied, rather than a way to become different. And the older you get – if you haven’t submitted gracefully and tried to see the positive in what’s happening to you – the harder and more uncomfortable it gets.
You have to mix realism with fantasy. Realism that, yes, it’s really happening to you … but fantasy in the sense of discovering the little replacements and victories. But the fantasy has to have at least a grain of reality – of possibility – in it. That way, you can be realistic about what you’re likely to achieve, while still looking and dreaming and hoping.
GRAPEVINE: How important are friends and family as we age?
MARGARET: Increasingly important. You want MORE friends when you get older.
If you don’t get out so much, you don’t have so many casual friends … people you know at work, acquaintances you just nod to, that kind of thing. So it’s even more important to have a network of really good friends – friends of depth.
IT PAYS TO REMEMBER …
We don’t just suddenly ‘become old’ – we don’t get all peculiar in a rush. We grow slowly into that way of being – whatever we’ve become like. So having friends of substance through the years is utterly vital. It’s going to make all the difference later.
Old friends are friends-in-the-spirit, and they’re definitely worth KEEPING! So value your friends and family. Invest in them. See them as a treasure. And if you can still get out, try and make NEW friends. They’ll increase the richness in your life.
GRAPEVINE: The things we lose as we age, the things we have to let go of – like driving, gardening, and so on. We suffer grief as those things go – right? And we don’t always handle grief well, do we?
MARGARET: That’s true. At each stage in old-age there inevitably will be losses. People die – people you knew and loved. And there are growing limitations in what you can and can’t do.
There’s no way you can change this – and refusing to think about it won’t prevent it. You have to PLAN for it and MOULD yourself around it … so that, as these things begin to happen, you have alternatives to enjoy.
GRAPEVINE: Do some people get stuck – perpetually grieving, never moving beyond the grief to the other side?
MARGARET: Unfortunately, yes! I vividly remember coming down an elevator at a big shopping centre with two other old people. One, a man, was on a mobility scooter, and appeared very cheerful. The other, his wife, seemed physically okay but grumbled the whole time. Her face was lined in a perpetual scowl of discontent. Everything was wrong – the lift was slow, the weather was bad, the mall was too crowded, her husband was hopeless – and on and on.
It seemed to me that every loss, to this woman, was hell. In fact, LIFE was hell! By contrast, her husband, in the scooter, was all for looking on the bright side!
I think we settle into the mould that we make for ourselves. We either become a grumpy, whining, dissatisfied old person – or we make the best of things and become a … what? … a CHEERFUL old person, searching for the good, finding the positives.
If we can be the latter, it makes life much more bearable – not only for us, but for everyone around us. Life’s what we make of it – and it can even be fun!
COUNT ON IT!
If you’re going to become an old person – and YOU ARE! – you might as well be a mellow one. You might as well be happy. And that’s not a decision you make on the spot just once; it’s a mind-set and an attitude you have to work at.
The earlier you start, the more likely you’ll succeed!
GRAPEVINE: You obviously believe we retain a measure of control over this – even if we lose abilities or suffer illness?
MARGARET: Exactly. We’re not totally helpless, even when the chips are down. You often see this in people (not just older people, either) who face terrible situations of loss or illness – people who’ve chosen to see the good and have risen above their circumstances.
You tend to think to yourself, “If I could just be like that …” And the thing is, if you’re determined to – you CAN BE. But it won’t ever happen by accident.
We may not have much control over what happens TO us – but we have an enormous measure of control over what we DO about it, how we respond to it, and what we make of ourselves in the situation.
It’s very rare, in my experience, that we have no choices whatever open to us. We create “the old person we’ll be” by the kinds of choices we make.
Is it a struggle? Of course. But it’s worth doing …
GRAPEVINE: Speaking of struggle, can we talk briefly about sex? There’s a widespread suspicion that sex goes off the boil – and off the agenda – as you get older.
MARGARET: Well, that’s a load of rubbish. It’s simply not true. Sex can continue to be a part of your humanity, right into ‘Old-Old-Age’.
People are inclined to laugh at older couples who get married – couples whose first partners have died. People seem to see it as, perhaps, a bit pathetic. But, often, this is a time of incredible happiness for this elderly couple. They’re in love, they hold hands, they really value this wonderful new relationship.
It’s lovely to see!
And, chances are, these two will probably be more complementary, more tolerant and more realistic than many younger couples. They won’t expect each other to be ‘perfect’!
GRAPEVINE: Which brings us to the hardest question of all: accepting mortality. We get awfully uneasy, don’t we, when someone reminds us we’re all going to die eventually?
MARGARET: There are several points in life when that fact gets driven home. Perhaps the first time is when someone our own age, a friend maybe, dies. It brings us up with a rude shock and makes us realise, “Gosh, that’ll happen to ME one day!”
COMING, READY OR NOT:
It’s very important that we hold on to that idea – but not in a sad or morbid way. We don’t want to be constantly miserable. But we need to see death as a part of our journey. It WILL come to us. And when it happens, we’ll find out what it’s all about.
However, we won’t know till we get there.
GRAPEVINE: We prefer to not acknowledge this – right? To shove it way back in our memory and not to think about it or talk about it. But does this denial make the latter part of life’s journey less fruitful and less happy for us?
MARGARET: Definitely. In a situation where somebody’s dying, you often find that the sick person is aware of what’s actually happening – and feels the need to prepare properly for the end of his life – but others around can’t take it. They say things like, “Oh, you’re looking much better today! Soon be up and about again, eh?” They’re afraid to see what’s really happening, afraid to face the truth. Which is tragic …
It doesn’t help the dying person. It certainly doesn’t change the outcome. And it doesn’t help anyone cope any better with the eventual outcome.
However, I do think this sort of thing is improving. Funerals, for example, are not quite so ‘funereal’ as they used to be. Not so grim. They tend to be more of a celebration of someone’s life. We hear more really down-to-earth talk of the person who’s gone – rather than just a list of their achievements doled out in a ghoulish ritual. Family and friends often share funny stories – even jokes – that help show up the humanity of the REAL person in that coffin.
GRAPEVINE: That final chapter in ‘Old-Old-Age’ – the frail stage that most of us really dread – is there a way we can accept even that process joyfully and positively?
MARGARET: Well, we’re getting into spiritual territory here. Which is, of course, essential. That’s the whole point, really, when the end is near. You see, very close to the idea of spirituality is the ability to trust … and the ability to live with the unknown.
I think what’s so frightening for most people about dying is … what will it be like?
I’ve always compared it with birth. I mean, you can imagine that little baby, kicking and struggling inside its mother’s womb. Imagine if somebody asked it (assuming it could talk), “What do you expect things will be like when you get out of here?” How could the child possibly imagine what was in store?
UNBORN & SCARED:
Would the child be frightened about the birth process? Yes, of course. Will he struggle and resist what’s happening? Yes, of course. How could he from inside the womb know anything of the life that awaited him outside?
And I suspect it’s the same in death …
We can’t possibly conceive of it. The struggling and fear doesn’t help – it simply makes the process more difficult for ourselves and those around us.
But if we want peace in those last hours, we must try to wait with trust, hoping for what happens in the next opening.
A lot of people find that difficult, though, I know.
GRAPEVINE: Religious faith – that surely makes things easier?
MARGARET: Yes, I think it can be a great comfort. But if it’s going to ‘work’ at the important times, faith needs to be something you’ve appropriated for yourself – you know? You’re not just grasping at some vague ideas you’ve been told about – you need to have worked through it for yourself.
Everyone has to die. We don’t know exactly what it will be like, but we do know it will happen to all of us. So anything we do in our earlier lives that helps us become people of trust – people who can accept the inevitable with serenity, and look for what’s positive – all of that will help us greatly when we begin our final journey.