“Don’t underestimate your ripple.”
Barbara is an intelligent and independent woman, living in a small flat right next to Tate Modern. She is 86 and has lived here for the last 40 years, always on her own. Her husband passed away a long time ago, and she doesn’t have any children. Full of books about psychology and culture, artifacts and objects that are meaningful to her, this flat represents who she is as a person, and is very important to her. She loves writing and has lots of creative work she’s produced throughout her life. Barbara talks about wanting to leave her story behind, but doesn’t feel she’s got the capacity to make this happen anymore. Barbara practiced as a psychotherapist until her 70s, whilst also dealing with her own severe depression. Having had a difficult past, especially in her early years, she spent a lifetime trying to understand what motivates people. She has recently gone back to visiting a psychotherapist.
Barbara has spent a lifetime fighting the norm, and her identity is very important to her. “I always took pride in looking different from everyone else. I had a very distinctive style.” She has many stories to tell and doesn’t shy away from discussing her own death and legacy.
Losing her sense of self
Barbara notices that she can do less and less of the things that are most important to her, and is struggling to find reasons to keep on living. Anticipating a move from her beloved flat, she feels her world is falling apart around her and there is nothing helping her to keep it together. She is fearful of becoming dependent. She would rather be in control of her own death through assisted suicide, which is not something that is currently possible in the UK.
"I’ve got everything in place. I wrote my Will long ago. The only problem is what happens in between now and death. Where can I cope with dying? Who will support me? As I’m falling apart physically and mentally, the world seems to fall apart around me. Everything that’s going on in the world is affecting me deeply. I’m having severe suicidal thoughts. I am going through a very rough, depressive patch. I feel such a sense of shame, too, over not being able to cope better. It feels like all my former competent-enough years never happened. I have collapsed into a helpless, crying baby again.”
“My life frightens me. I feel stuck. There’s no purpose for me to go on. Gradually I have come to accept that my sadness and grief are quite natural reactions to the losses of growing older and I have no wish to prolong this. My anxiety over tripping over broken paving stones and sustaining another fracture has increased, along with my fear of being rendered housebound with minimal support from the already overstretched ‘services’. Rather than endure more of this and possibly worse (and not being inclined for a major clear-out and move into community living, no matter how ‘desirable’) I would much prefer to be helped to die, as is possible in Holland. This means at a time of my own choosing, hopefully in my own much-loved little flat, kindly enabled to cease breathing with the help of a doctor.”
Barbara has worked in health services her whole life, first as a Psychiatric Nurse and then as a Registered General Nurse and then as a Psychotherapist. She has a whole lifetime of experience and gets frustrated when she feels her experience isn’t adequately recognised. “It was the same with both my parents. Neither felt adequately valued and recognised at their work.” The interactions she’s had with services over the years have left very bad impressions.
“One of the greatest terrors I have now - this is why I wish I were dead - is having a fall and a fracture, and then there not being sufficient services to help me.”
“I had a fall and ended up in the hospital. There was a fight between the hospital and social services over who was going to be responsible for me with my leg in a plaster and no family or neighbours around to help. I was told to phone the social services on arrival home. They asked me 2 questions. Never mind a ‘how are you Mrs. Robson’? The first one was ‘do you need a commode?’ and the second one ‘do you need meals-on-wheels?’. I was still in shock from having just arrived home! Wasn’t used to using a crutch. Here we have an example of dehumanised social service. Well I told her: no thank you I don’t want a commode, because I’m sure I can limp to the loo. I don’t want meals-on-wheels because I tend to eat raw food, like salads and soups, I don’t like what they have. They said well if you don’t want that there’s nothing we can offer you. Are you’re saying you’re making an assessment over the phone, not even coming to see the circumstances of where I’m living? She immediately responded: I will send you a complaint form, and if you can tell us how to run our service better than we are, we’ll all be very grateful. I’m not making a complaint! I’m trying to adjust myself. I’ll have the plaster for 6 weeks at least, I’m trying to work out how to manage. She responded: ‘Our services are in meltdown, I will contact you in a month’s time to check.’ I might have said at that point: ‘what - to see if I’m still alive?’ How did I manage? This chair has wheels on it. I managed to scoot my way around through 6 weeks of solitude.”
Dealing with loneliness
Barbara has a strong personality. She’s learned to not make excuses for who she is and what she stands for, and anyone who tells her otherwise is not worth having in her life. Most of her friends live in places far away. She no longer hears from her late sister’s family. She doesn’t have many people close by that she can count on.
My family want this flat. They’re not going to get it. I refuse to be the equivalent of the Victorian great aunt, who’s supposed to be grateful for their crumbs and leave them this flat.”
“I have nothing in common with what I call ‘Ordinary People’. I don’t enjoy gossip. I don’t have grandchildren to brag about. I’m on a different wave-length. I feel like a thinker between un-thinkers.” “I’m very attracted to your age group [people in their 30s] and get on well with them. I call them my surrogate grandchildren. But unfortunately, although they are fond of me, they’re full with their own lives and they go off. So, I repeatedly have to cope with an empty nest, you see. I don’t have friends I can rely on here. None are geographically close.”
‘Turning shit into manure’
Even though she had a very difficult life, Barbara has found that all her experiences can offer something from which others can learn. It’s important to her to feel her life had a purpose. She is looking for any opportunity to leave a legacy of expertise and experience.
“I want to leave my story. Even though it was all shit. You can transform shit into manure. I’d like my experiences to help future generations. The most important symbol for me is the pebble, falling into a pool of life. It makes a ripple, for better and for worse. Don’t underestimate your ripple! I’ll remember the ripples I’ve caused in my life. This helps me when I’m feeling hopeless about the state of the world, and that I had no impact on improving it. It’s knowing that you’re not alone. There are others who think like me.”
“I so want to help people to understand that old age – especially the gift of time that retirement offers – can have great meaning and value both to the person and their wider network. Simply sitting still and drawing on the depths can prove like treasure found at the rainbow’s end. And this far exceeds any possible pot of gold, for this rainbow-treasure can only appear when sun is combined with rain. I think this may be ‘The Pearl of Great Price.’”
“My view is that death is a natural part of the life-cycle for all forms of life. So too is the suffering of sadness and grief as we gradually come to face the truth of our mortality. But it’s lessened, so I’ve found, when shared with empathetic others of every colour, creed or class. How shall our species evolve if the old are not willing to make way for the coming generations? What can our lives mean when we lack all sense of being a part of history? Death need not always be feared or seen as a tragedy, something to be continuously fended off, when we’ve lived our brief span as well as possible and given of our best.”