While visiting residents in a Jerusalem retirement home, I vividly remembered a conversation with a 90-year-old woman who told of a wedding she attended the night before. I asked her if she enjoyed it. She replied with a laugh and then proceeded to tell me how her whole table was made up of elderly women. One would not eat the dessert because of the sugar, the other abstained from the meat because of cholesterol. A third was afraid of the salt because of her blood pressure.
She asked them why they couldn’t just once, enjoy the wedding with all the trimmings. After all, how often do they go out?
“What are they afraid of?” she asked. “Dying young?” And she rolled with laughter as she recollected the evening and the wonderful food.
Then a few weeks ago I saw a report on the news about a 103-year-old man who went skydiving. He jumped out of an airplane. It was awesome. Really amazing to see this man free fall, land, shakily stand up and dust himself off. He got a bit dizzy, he said, but it was worth it. When I related this story to a friend of mine, her reaction was one of utter shock. Why did the family allow him to do it? It’s so dangerous. But he made his choice.
More recently a friend of mine who is in the high-risk age group for coronavirus and therefore has not had physical contact with her grandchildren for months, asked her daughter to bring over her eight-month-old grandchild so she could babysit. She needs it, she declared. She will be careful. She will wash her hands. She will wear a mask. But she cannot go on this way. It is making her depressed. Her other daughter is horrified that she should take such a risk.
When people age, does that mean they can no longer make decisions for themselves? Does it mean we need to protect them by wrapping them in cotton wool?
How can we, as a society and as family of older adults, find the balance between protecting and respecting?
When young backpackers, post-army, go to New Zealand and bungee -jump off a cliff, they take calculated risks. They are securely tied to a rope by someone they trust. The risk of injury is still there but the thrill is worth it to them. We may think they are crazy but we don’t go hysterical (okay, maybe their mothers do!). But we are not considered irresponsible for not putting a stop to it.
When a diver enters the water, he makes a calculated decision. There is a danger of injury so he mitigates that danger by wearing the correct diving gear. He also learns how to handle the oxygen tank and how to signal for help in an emergency. Once again these are calculated risks. The danger is still there but the gain – the thrill of diving into the deep blue sea – makes the risk worthwhile for that individual. It makes the diver feel alive.
Most older adults are intelligent people who have made decisions on their own for most of their lives. There is a reason they reached the age they did. They know how to look after themselves. They were, and some still are, working women and men who have held responsible jobs and brought up families of their own. Being old does not mean being incapable of making decisions.
There are those who can no longer make decisions due to impaired cognition, but it is not a given part of aging that decision-making or even calculated risk-taking are things that all older adults can no longer do. It goes without saying that we must follow the law, especially now in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, but that does not mean we have to stop respecting choices older adults make. An elderly person should still be able to expect more from life than just safety.
There are occasions where we do have to get involved, where pride or fear of losing independence might influence an elderly person to choose unwisely. But that can be said for all of us. We all, on occasion, need advice as to the right choices to make in life.
Our prime minister is in the high-risk age group. He is making decisions for himself and for the whole country every single day. No one has suggested that his age should be a defining factor as to whether this role should go to him.
We all make decisions and take risks in life. It is part of normal living. No one wants to live in constant fear of the what-ifs. We all need to use common sense, and while it has been suggested to me that common sense is sometimes not that common, it is no different for someone 70 and older as it is for someone under 70.
Let’s look after the elderly. Let’s love them and respect them and remember that one day we will be them. We will not want someone dictating our every decision “just because we are old.”
The writer is a geriatric social worker based in Jerusalem.