On a quick trip to Salt Spring this past weekend, I visited my friend Marjorie. She will turn 93 on April 16th.
She is as mentally sharp, if not sharper, than anyone you’d ever hope to meet. Give her a once over and she looks fantastic, years younger than she is.
Most people, however, will not discover her humour or how quick she truly is, mentally, if they didn’t already know it, because her greatest challenge is that she has lost her hearing. The result is difficulty communicating with others and a great sense of isolation. Even with a hearing aid which, apparently, brings its own problems.
It doesn’t help that she is in fact isolated because she lives on a rural property. One of her sons lives on the grounds. It’s a property that was owned by her parents and that she moved to upon her late husband’s retirement in the 1970’s. I can’t say for sure, but I sense that she wouldn’t have wanted to move elsewhere, even on island. Her home is her home. Nature is her company. Until recently, so was her cat Duchess. She has a cleaner who has become a friend who comes once a week. Another son visits from Victoria often. Her daughter comes when she can from Alberta as well as grandsons and great grandchildren.
I have always been around older people. My parents were 39 and 43 years older than me when I was born. My sisters were 11 and 14 years older. In my forties, I watched my parents’ aging and then, and it seemed to happen quickly, they were gone. But, in fact, it didn’t happen that quickly because, relatively speaking, they lived long lives. My mother lived to 84, my father to 93. Somehow, especially with my father who remained healthy for so long, long never seems long enough.
Aging is challenging in so many ways. Hearing loss is just one of them. But what isn’t always apparent is that when you lose your hearing, even if you’re wearing hearing aids, it’s challenging to participate in conversations. People can’t be bothered. They have to repeat themselves. They hate repeating themselves. They don’t want to yell. Maybe they feel embarrassed.
In the car driving home, Marjorie claimed that it may actually be easier to be blind than deaf because if you’re blind, people will know it, they’ll help you, they’ll feel sorry for you. Not that THAT’S a piece of cake. I’m sure she wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
I saw for myself what happens when she tried to explain that she was hard of hearing. Having to say it immediately shuts down conversation with most people who don’t know how to respond. They’re embarrassed to shout back. They’re shy to take the time to find a way to communicate. They can’t be bothered.
If you’re deaf, there are no signs. You look perfectly fine. Nobody knows you’re deaf until they try to speak to you.
On Sunday, we went to two galleries and when I engaged in conversation, she couldn’t hear what was being said between me and the other person that I was speaking with so she just kept looking. She was on the outside. And in our society, getting old and being on the outside is the norm. I was guilty, I suppose, of not trying to ensure that she was included to a greater extent.
In a world where productivity and materialism are the Holy Grail, people who are not producing or consuming in large quantities are no longer seen as valuable. It no longer seems enough just to be. But actually it is. Because your being is your only authentic wealth, your legacy.
It’s not necessarily easy to be the kind of person who recognizes this and looks for it – in the wonder of children, in the other of homelessness, in the wisdom of the elderly, in animals, in plants and flowers and in natural beauty and sounds.