Ageless Ties: The beginning
I’ve wanted to start this conversation for quite some time now, the subject of how an inter-generational relationship can ease anxiety, give new and fresh perspectives on the way you view your life and troubles, and make you want to leave your phone alone as you begin to realise that life really is better when you’re in good company.
Through my work as a physiotherapist specializing in elderly care and my relationships with my grandparents I have firsthand experience of the ways in which ties with friends from older generations can enhance your life. But don’t just take my word for it. The experts have also conclusively proven that having friendships outside your family with people from a totally different ‘age range’ can have an extraordinarily positive impact all of our mental health. What’s more it’s the face-to-face, sharing a cuppa type of interactions, as opposed to the screen to screen which offers the most tonic. In 1938, Harvard University began following 724 participants as part of the longest-running study on human development in history. The study was developed to find out what really makes us happy. The study explored every part of who we are, from physical and psychological traits to social life to learn how we can flourish. What they found, was exactly what I have experienced so far. It showed that happiness and health aren’t a result of wealth, fame or working hard, but come from our relationships. Vaillant, G.E. (2012). Triumphs of Experience. The men of the Harvard Grant study. Belknap Press: World.
During this process, and I suppose, because I have had nothing but positivity surrounding my experiences and conversations with people from the older generation, I didn’t stop to think that issues such as ageism were still so problematic. It is actually the most prevalent form of discrimination being faced today and arises from an increasing generational divide.Nurturing inter-generational relationships throughout all stages of life has been shown to be the most successful way to fight ageism. It goes without saying that exposure to this kind of relationship is important, not only for the incredible impact it has on peoples lives, but also to demonstrate to peers of the same generation, that attitudes must change towards our older generation. “The more contact young people have with older adults, the less anxious they are about their own ageing, and the less ageist they are” Allan & Johnson, 2009; Allan et al., 2014.
I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to meet some absolutely cracking people who fall into the older generation. Some are family and some are patients who are 60 years my elder, some are friends I’ve made along the way who are 15-20 years my elder. The one thing that these relationships have had in common is the way that both parties have benefitted and have felt some enhancement in life quality because of the way we have connected and shared parts of our lives.
I’ll tell you about my first experience with an older friend, Angela. The first time I left home and went off to university, I managed to have a bump in my new car, fresh from passing my driving test. I’m a tall woman, whose flexible joints aren’t the strongest and because of this, I suffered quite an injury to my neck. Cue a physiotherapy referral in my new university town of Preston. I was petrified, having just started a Degree in dance, that I wouldn’t be able to move my neck again, let alone be able to move fluidly. How was I supposed to be the world’s best contemporary dancer with a stiff neck?! Then I met Angela, who was to be the physio expert who would change the course of both my university experience, and inadvertently the rest of my life too.
She was everything I could have hoped for and more; her energy was infectious, her knowledge calming and empowered and she was someone that I admired greatly. Soon, I began to work in her physio practice for her on reception and she would go through teachings with me each evening after my shift to prepare me for uni. I babysat her kids, hung out with her family at weekends and she pulled me through a really hard break-up, cheerleading for me at every point. She clapped when I won and I clapped when she did too. I would help her with styling when she wanted new clothes, and look after the children if she had to work extra hours or just needed a couple of hours to herself. We gave different yet equally important things to each other. Because of my relationship with Angela, when it became clear that my dream of dancing professionally wasn’t going to be an option, I was inspired to become a physiotherapist myself. I saw the good she was doing and I wanted to do that too.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself working as a physiotherapist (yes, I qualified with the inspiration of Angela!) in NHS hospitals across the country. There are many specialisms in the practice, but I settled in an area I excelled in, and felt completed me in some way, and that was elderly care. What a rollercoaster working with the elderly is! A job so rewarding, yet so emotionally exhausting, I just can’t think of anything to relate it to. It is its own beast, elderly care. Some days you’ll make the most amazing progress with your patient, physically and mentally. You’ll have a brew together, they’ll offer up some advice for a broken heart without being asked and you leave work feeling brighter, and they do, too. And you might walk into work the next morning to learn they became seriously unwell overnight and that their chances of survival are very slim. But I wouldn’t change a thing about the nature of it all. Well maybe I’d edit out that time Doris drop kicked me in the chest for making her a cuppa—dementia is a bastard. And I’d probably forget the night that Horace’s catheter exploded on my leg just as I was about to get ready for my ward’s Christmas Do. Having to wear surgical scrubs on the way home to shower was definitely not my finest hour. One of the longest showers of my life, that was.
During my career as a physiotherapist, I met and worked with mainly those in old age. I have struggled with anxiety ever since my early 20s, and what I didn’t realise at the time, was just how much the work with my elderly patients helped me. There were a few patients on my ward in particular who would be able to calm me down altogether, just by being around them. I never really told anyone about how I was feeling but the way they cared, interacted and shared some of their life with me was all I really needed. They gave me a great sense of purpose, and would be open with me about how lovely it was when I came to treat them, stopped by with a hot drink, or popped out to get them a paper. And although I didn’t do any of those things in order to get anything in return, I gained an awful lot in terms of perspective and self-worth. I have a great deal to thank them for.
Among the many things I love in life, care of the elderly is way up there (in case I hadn’t made that point already!). As a child, I doted on my grandparents and would spend every single weekend sleeping over at their house. Sometimes I’d creep into bed with nana, and sometimes I would get nana and granddad to put up a tent in the conservatory so me and my younger brother, Michael, could feel like we were camping, without actually being brave enough to sleep in the garden.
Growing up, I was always closest to my nana, Edna. She was a line dancing, gentle woman with a wicked sense of humor, a twinkle of naughtiness and had all the time in the world for me. There always comes a time as we grow into teenagers—if you’ve been lucky enough to know your grandparents—that they suddenly seem elderly and you notice that the ease in which they once climbed the stairs has vanished, along with their ability to mask a really painful, arthritic lower back. My nana has dementia and now lives in a residency that provides 24-hour care for her needs. It is absolutely shit, and I hate it so much. Watching her wicked little personality fade away has been heartbreaking, but she is loved and we all visit her often.
As for Granddad… The man with the kindest face and smile you have ever laid your eyes on. Syd, my grandad, kept himself to himself during our childhood. He was there and sometimes involved, but really he would leave nana to it with us. Especially as my cousin Adele and I were quite girly girls and wanted to be upside down and head first into nana’s make-up, jewellery and clothes. He liked a quiet life and we were LOUD children who insisted on playing ‘Power Rangers’ by jumping from chair to chair in the living room during the news, which he watched every day without fail.
As I left home for University, moved out of Stockport and grew up, I would always, always come back especially to visit nana and granddad, Ed & Syd. I would spend hours there, have tea, watch some evening TV with them, brew the tea, make sure they had both eaten properly, and generally fuss. Funny how that changes isn’t it? Nana and granddad would fuss over me as a child but as we all grew older, it was my turn to bother over them.
My relationship with my granddad blossomed into one of the most special connections I think I will ever have. We spent a lot of time together on my visits and he always had so many questions for me, just as I had for him. He knew the ins and outs of my job as a physio, and he also knew everything there was to know about blogging! The thing he used to say to me every time I saw him, was “will you bloody slow down!” I tried to listen. And woe betide if I left it longer than a few weeks to visit him, because I’d be told off as soon as I set foot through the door.
It’s my granddad, the older friends I’ve made, and caring for elderly people in my physiotherapy career that have inspired me to start this conversation. I honestly believe that we have so much to gain from each other, if we just listen, put down our devices, and look at the amazing people and incredible resources of experiences which are right in front of us. The idea that a solution to our collective crisis of anxiety could be sitting right under our noses in sitting rooms up and down the country might sound unlikely. But I know from both my own relationships and the many other men and women’s relationships I’ve explored through my research, that the answer really is that simple.
I will be sharing interviews with some special people—individuals with amazing experiences that we can learn so much from—very soon! And in the meantime, I would so love to hear stories of your experiences with older friends or relatives. xx