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Cherishing the dignity of old age

31 March 2017

Paul Vallely is prompted to reflect on how society deals with the issues of later life


BY ONE of those pieces of serendipity, the day before Mothering Sunday we were in the Lake District, and, after an afternoon of glorious walking in the spring sunshine, saw a play in the lovely little Theatre by the Lake in Keswick.

Next morning, I heard an extraordinarily beautiful piece of broadcasting on Radio 4. The two have resonated in a curious interplay in my mind ever since.

The subject of the play could have sounded unpromising: Silver Lining told of five elderly ladies, abandoned by the world quite literally, as their old people’s home was besieged by rising floodwaters.

But the theatre was packed — perhaps because they know about floods here in the Lake District; or perhaps because the play was written by the television comedian Sandi Toksvig.

The next morning, Anna Magnusson offered a reflection in Radio 4’s Sunday Worship slot which also addressed the fact that our increasingly elderly population. She considered Mothering Sunday from the standpoint of the growing number of people whose relationship with their mother — or indeed father — has been turned upside down by frailty and dementia.

The play, and the programme, were stimulating and complementary reflections on how our society deals with the elderly.

The Toksvig play was very funny, even at times allowing gratuitous gags to divert the audience from the writer’s serious purpose. The five ladies were each forced to confront the unpalatable truth that they had been abandoned by the world, both proximately and more metaphorically.

The stories of the women unfolded through performances of real finesse by actresses “with hundreds of years experience between them”. Each, in different ways, travelled the rollercoaster of dreams and disappointments which characterises any long life. But each finally triumphed through resilience, humour, and companionship — with a dogged insistence on the innate dignity of every individual.

There was an obstinate optimism about it which it is sometimes hard to maintain in the face of the grinding dementia that increasingly bedevils old age. What then?

The answer to that question, Magnusson suggested, can be only love. She began with a touching tale of kneeling at her mother’s cold, dry feet with their tough old yellowed nails. As she carefully pulled socks over those ancient feet, worn and battered by time, she felt her mother’s hand on her head, stroking her hair.

The world feels turned upside down when we begin to mother and father our parents. Yet the acts of their love which we carry from childhood through the ravages of the years return to us in moments of grace. Roles are reversed as we give back the care we have received — and yet we never fully relinquish the need to be mothered ourselves.

The dignity of old age, Toksvig insists, must be upheld, burnished, and flourished like a standard. But, Magnusson reminds us, it must be cherished and caressed, too.

The play is nearing the end of a national tour. The radio programme is available on the Sunday Worship page of BBC Radio iPlayer for another month. Seek them out.


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