It’s an interesting thing to notice what
loving another means as we age. That soft, warm and sometimes exciting feeling that we experience when we are young usually mellows with the years, has a different flavour. Appearances matter less, the heart matters more.
The commitment to accompany and tend another, even when it’s not pretty, is a wonderful expression of this love, and brings with it the richest of rewards. It is surely a beautiful thing to know that those who care for and about us, will not shy away when things get tough; that their love and respect for us overrides all obstacles and will not falter.
Holding, listening and being attentive to what may seem like tiny details of a person’s life reminds us to slow down, be actively present and sometimes to dig deep for patience.
We may have to leave the comfort of our chair and come in close, help with something distasteful, or out of our
comfort zone. This is where the richness comes in; over the course of these extraordinary moments may find that we gain more than we give and emerge with a greater sense of our collective humanity. It can also give us that nudge to become more than we ever thought we could be.
The creeping conviction that we have done nothing useful or have nothing to contribute as we age is very common, this calls for positive affirmations and relentless kindness. If our care needs have moved us away from the familiar into a home, hospice or hospital, such reassurance is even more important. With our identity under threat, warmth and empathy from those around us makes all the difference. So, does just turning up. When we are at our most fragile, it is not unusual for us to face enormous challenges, mostly alone. Finding ways to support each other is important.
Betty’s Story – Love in Action
Betty’s dear face was always turned expectantly towards the door, eyes anxious and hands like fat little apples twisting the tartan blanket over her bony knees. The team in the care home usually remained at a distance when offering suggestions for lunch and for very good reason – they were only too accustomed to her biting retorts and endless grumbles.
Betty was starving. Not for food certainly but for inner warmth and comfort in her heart. Over time I became attuned to what softened her resistance to being loved. Initially it was coming in close, holding her hand, and offering positive affirmations. She let me gently brush her wisps of hair with long slow strokes. Taking in a small bowl and lavender oil, I soaked her feet in warm water, massaging tenderly round each toe as I held her feet on a clean white towel in my lap. She would watch as if mesmerised. Betty began to feel loved. We found poems she remembered, songs she
enjoyed singing and pinned up beautiful images of animals and landscapes by her chair for her to gaze at. She never joined the others in the lounge, but more people now came to visit her. She continued to need frequent reminders of her worth and the sweetness of her life. Over time the lens through which she viewed the world began to shift.
Her environment changed as she changed. Disconnected from the land she loved, Betty found solace in wildlife films, being taken to the park and sitting outside with the sun on her face – these moments were all partners in her healing.
The team, with encouragement, noticed the change, and the atmosphere in Betty’s room became more of welcome and reciprocity rather than misery. With her heart softening, this venerable woman could be reunited with her family and community in a more wholesome way, while she still could.
Reflections on Betty’s Story
- Take a moment to remember how it felt to be vulnerable or ill. We have all been there; it can be a very lonely place. It is helpful to reflect on what was important to us in that moment.
- Leave your own day at the door. Greeting each other with a presence that is clear and fresh enables us to be in the moment without assumptions or conditioning. Within families we often bring old hurts or stories into our relationships. This new situation demands a new perspective – paving the way to forgiveness and love.
- When faced with the unfamiliar our inclination can be to keep our distance. This may not be the most helpful way to make a connection. Coming in close, even kneeling beside someone and, at eye level, gently taking a hand somehow bridges a gap. It’s comforting. However as always, it is important to pay attention to body language – ours and theirs.
- Simple actions such as brushing the hair, or stroking the head can be calming, relaxing and beautiful examples of an empathetic response. Intimacies that were unimaginable in the past may become possible as age mellows us.
- Reminding people that they are fundamentally good, have lived a good life and are themselves loved, is a very important thing. Many of us cannot hear enough of it! We are mostly skilful at self-deprecation - our memories are not primed to remember the wonderful things we have done.
- Finding something beautiful or that we admire about someone is always possible. It might just be the colour of their eyes – but first we must LOOK. Familiarity often means that we cease to see.