One older lady once said to me, on finding herself in a psychiatric ward following the “breakdown” she’d experienced; “I can just about deal with stiff joints and bad backs, but when people start questioning my mind and I start believing I’m losing that too, then I feel lost and very scared”. Losing control of our bodies, in whichever form this may take, can be scary, embarrassing and hugely anxiety provoking, but when the choice of what to do about that is then also taken away from us, these emotions multiply and dent our self-belief and confidence even further.
Is that the main fear of old age – of losing control of our bodies with an instinct of self-preservation? Of having to give up an element of our independence to be ‘looked after’? Of losing our youth and everything that, in direct contrast to ageing, it represents?
Attending a recent lecture given by a celebrity of the occupational therapy world, Michael Iwama spoke about the relationship between rivers and life; the beginnings at the mouth of our river; the meandering flow of the course of life; the richness of our riverbed and the depth and strength of our banks – shaping, holding and supporting our life’s flow, and the deposits of sediment or rocks which, just like problems in life will create blockages and impede flow. This metaphor demonstrates so clearly the journey we all take in life and the problems or blockages that we come up against. However it also illustrates quite powerfully our ability to keep going, despite the blockages that we might come up against, or the rocks in the river that impede the flow. There will always be a hole to get through, irrespective of how small this space might be. The river must keep flowing.
He further uses driftwood as a metaphor for assets and liabilities in our life which represent the talents and skills that we have or the dislikes and characteristics we possess. This driftwood could, on meeting sediment deposits in the river, either block it up further or else collide with the deposits and knock them out of the way, thus freeing up the blockage. We all have strengths as well as needs and, when meeting a blockage in our river or a problem in our life, it is worth considering how to use our driftwood to help dislodge the problem. We all have a narrative and the older we are, the longer the narrative, the longer the river, the greater the courage and strength to keep flowing.
If we have an older relative or friend who has reached a blockage in their river, whether that be through physical ill-health, cognitive ill-health, mental ill-health or emotional ill-health, take some time with them to discover their narrative and their stock of driftwood; their likes, skills, talents and motivations. Unless you have Power of Attorney and permission to make decisions for that person, include them in your discussions and give them the information they need to take part in any decision making. Having open and honest discussions may provide you all with a solution for freeing up the flow of life, for making life more comfortable and smooth. There will always be a hole to get through, but everyone needs to be involved to find it and plan the best course of action to get through it, without getting lost, confused and scared in the process.