Archive for February, 2010



In the past 18 months, my 82-year-old mother has gone from being a fairly independent woman to an invalid in a wheelchair. It hasn’t been an easy transition.
Apart from the physical pain and trauma she has endured, and the gross indignity and emotional grief at her loss of independence, there is an ongoing sense of rage.
This is an emotion rarely mentioned among all the discussions about “ageing in place” and the rights of the aged, but one that strongly affects not only the person concerned but all who care for them. It is hard to keep coming back with love and reassurances when someone is attacking you. It is harder still, on those occasions when she stops attacking, and speaks plainly about her frustrations, and I feel so deeply sorry for her and for all the bad thoughts I had while I was on the other end of that tongue.
Although it is understandable, this sense of rage also makes it harder for her family to help her, firstly because she is uncooperative and secondly because we are nervous about suggesting things that we know she will resist.
People in her circumstances don’t want to be told to exercise or eat properly or to do what the doctor tells them, least of all by the people whom they feel should be on “their side”. They just want to be listened to and held and reassured. But if you really love someone, then you’re prepared to do what is required to help them, even if they don’t like you as a result.
I wish she was less angry. I wish she was more courageous. I wish she was more rational. And, I admit, I sometimes wish she was dead, simply so that she – and we – did not have to be going through all this. But then I call her as usual and we have a real conversation, where there is a genuine exchange of ideas and no lashing out, and I wish I had never had these thoughts.
I have pondered long and hard about whether my feelings about this are fair, and how I would react in her circumstances. I’ve had my fair share of ill-health and have lived with a disability all my life, so I understand more than she realises – or cares to admit. But, as they say, you can never know how you would react unless you walk in someone else’s shoes.
Age also affects intellectual capacity, so most of us face old age not as the well-reasoned person we are in middle age, but often with confusion and diminished insight into our own capacity. I don’t know if I will cope any differently. We are so alike, my mother and I, that perhaps this behaviour is imprinted on me, too? But I will try, for the sake of my husband and my children.
To help me along the way, I have written some directions: instructions to myself about how to handle that final stage of my life. When I am lost and broken, as my mother is now, I hope that my children will have the courage to read them to me.

1. Be prepared. Do all you can to stay healthy but accept that your health will inevitably decline and others will have to care for you. Set things in train early so that firstly, you are in control and are able to make the best choices possible and secondly, so that your children don’t have to make decisions for you, or that you are not disappointed with the result.
2. Follow medical advice so that you get the most out of your medications and so your behaviour is not counter-productive to your treatment.
3. Accept that you will not be in control for your whole life and that most people are trying to help you, but to avoid being exploited and mistreated appoint an advocate early on.
4. Stay up-to-date with technology to avoid isolation. Technology changes the way we communicate. If you don’t keep up, you can be left out of the loop. I know it’s confusing, but there’s a lot of help out there. Take advantage of it. Don’t panic. Apply reasoning and logic and you will master it – or if all else fails, pay someone else to master it for you.
5. Stay interested in world events and things outside your own sphere. Life gets more difficult as we grow older. It takes longer to do the basic things and it’s tempting to fill your days with these alone. Don’t. Be interested in your friends’ lives, your children’s lives and the world around you.
6. Maintain and develop interests and hobbies. Don’t give up because there isn’t time. Make time. This will keep you young and interesting.
7. Spend some time in mid-life thinking about your life or even writing about it to try to sort out how you feel about it. Admit any regrets and try to resolve them. If necessary, see a psychologist. Read biography. It will help you realise that no one has a perfect life. It’s how you deal with the opportunities and adverse situations that matters. Don’t take anger and resentment into old age. Accept responsibility for the things you regret.
8. Don’t push people away because it’s too much trouble to accommodate them. People don’t care about your messy house or whether you’ve cooked a gourmet meal. They just want to be with you and share experiences. When you get past baking a cake and whipping up a roast, buy a tin of biscuits and keep the kettle on and order pizza. When you get past that, ask your friends to bring something to share. When you get past that, get Meals on Wheels and share that.
9. Organise your affairs. Get rid of your junk and put your papers in a safe place and then tell the family where they are.
10. Don’t be a victim. Realise that everyone must face old age and death. Try to do so with courage. This doesn’t mean you can’t tell people how you feel, but don’t complain and moan all the time about things that they or you can’t change, especially when they are doing their best.
11. Keep your sense of humour. If you can laugh at yourself and the world, you’ll be a lot happier.
12. Throughout your life, do something for others while you are able, even if it’s just listening. Instead of moaning about what you didn’t receive in life think about how you can help someone else.
13. Be kind to yourself and to others. If you push yourself all the time you will feel anxious and stressed and take it out on those around you. Find things that bring you joy, no matter how small.
14. Talk about death, especially when your family asks about your wishes. Don’t dismiss them. Remember that they are the ones that will be left behind. Missing you will be a little less painful if they can feel happy and confident that your last wishes were respected.
15. Be glad you lived and loved and that life will go on in the form of your children and grandchildren.

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How to be ugly


The young girls at the station were wearing tiny shorts and tank tops with spaghetti straps. That is the privilege of the young.

Except these girls were the size of 40-year-old women, with thighs like tree trunks and bulging breasts and bellies spilling over their under-sized tops. And they were going to the city, not the beach.

Their multi-coloured hair, bleached dry and blonde in spots and dyed pitch-black in others, was yanked back into pony-tails, revealing multiple earring studs and various tattoos. “You f….. told me to,” one of them was joking to the other.

Charming, I thought, as I walked behind them. “Whatever happened to class?” I thought, thinking of the song of the same name from the musical Chicago.

The movie icons of the ’50s and ’60s, such as Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Cyd Charisse and Marilyn Monroe, not only dressed beautifully they spoke beautifully and moved with a grace and elegance that ordinary people aspired to.

In those days tuxedos and ballgowns were formal wear. Informal wear meant no tie for men, and for women, no hat and gloves.

These days it means no bra and sometimes even no knickers – which is what a G-string can imply when viewed from the back on someone wearing a pair of old trackydaks, as occurred when I went to a local eisteddfod last year.

While the earnest young singers sang their carefully rehearsed pieces I sat behind four pairs of exposed buttocks of various genders.

This is one reason that my friend Jan, visiting from Moree, NSW – famous for its hot mineral baths and racial divides rather than its hot fashions – prefers the local fashions and people to those in Melbourne.

“As soon as I come back to Melbourne and see people like that I’m really shocked because  – I know you won’t believe me  – but you don’t see people like that in Moree,” she says. “There isn’t the cult of the ugly.”

We shake our greying heads in mutual disgust.

A few months later, I mention this to my friend Carolyn, looking for a further ally.
But Carolyn just laughs. This is not a reflection of the fashion sense of the young, but the morals of the old, she says.

Carolyn says her mother said the same thing about her fashion sense when she was a teenager.

As fashion dictated, Carolyn wore pale pink lipstick covered with white lipstick, giving her a deathly, parched look. Her favourite outfit was a big overcoat – and she smoked a pipe.

“Why do you have to make yourself look so ugly?” her mother lamented.

I, on the other hand, looked the epitome of class at 17, with my long skirts, “dolly” hair cut and ugg boots.

Ugg boots!” my 16-year-old daughter guffaws when I tell her this.

“Fashion changes!” I defend.

What doesn’t change is the fact that as we grow older, we grow more conservative.

This is a discomforting thought for those of us who vowed never to turn into our mothers.

I am even further discomforted when I Google “fashion +modesty” and find myself aligned with the Christian right in the US.

Yes, the “modesty” movement in the US is being led by Christians and is aimed at teenage girls, with the added aim of bringing back subservience.

“Pure fashion” exponents see women as the moral guardians of the world, as shown by the advice to wear a slightly padded bra on cold days – to avoid giving out the wrong signals.

What next? The burka?

I don’t believe that fashion should be decided by moral dictatorship – for men or women.

However, there is something to be said for good old-fashioned courtesy. Washing daily, keeping yourself reasonably well-groomed and not showing your private parts in public and not shouting obscenities is a basic courtesy and a mark of self-respect, as well as respect for others. It has nothing to do with morals, but everything to do with manners.

I believe that men and women should wear what they like: as long as their nipples aren’t grazing my chin on the tram and I’m not being mooned every time I go to a concert.

Call me crusty, but that’s the bottom line.

If you liked this, you may be interested in the following story, which was published in The Age today:

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If you’ve ever fancied writing your autobiography, then you’d better make sure you have someone to blame for your miserable life. In fact, you’d better make sure you’ve had a miserable life, or you’ll never get published.

I know this because I recently tried to buy an inspiring biography for my mother to while away the long hours in hospital. After 15 minutes of browsing the biography section of our local bookshop, I felt like slashing my wrists.

Here’s a sample of what was on offer: Not Without My Sister: the True Story of Three Girls Violated and Betrayed by Those They Trusted, by Juliana Bhuring, Celeste Jones and Kristina Jones; Disgraced – Forced to marry a stranger, betrayed by my own family and sold my body to surivive, by Saira Ahmed, and Belonging by Sameem Ali, which goes on to explain “I was abused and forced to marry. I was pregnant at 13. When I escaped, my brother tried to kidnap me.”

Lest you thing these unfortunate lives were only led by women, let me draw your attention to As Nature Made Him – the Boy who was Raised as a Girl, by John Colapinto, and A Child Called It – One Child’s Courage to Survive, by David Pelzer, who followed this up with The Lost Boy, A Foster Child’s Search for the Love of a Family.

It made The Diary of Anne Frank look like a romp in the park. At least Bert Facey, in A Fortunate Life did not present himself as a victim. Born in 1894, Facey survived Gallipoli and the Great Depression, but as the ABC Shop blurb says “Despite enduring hardships we can barely imagine today, Facey always saw his life as a fortunate one.”

It just shows the real purpose of autobiography these days is not enlightenment but revenge. Where are all the people who have happy lives and why don’t they write about them? As a child, I remember raiding my mother’s bookshelf and finding David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon, a hilarious account of his life as a movie star, plus the autobiography of Hollywood glamour girl Loretta Young and, of course, the biography of Joan Sutherland, whom my mother – herself a beautiful soprano – greatly admired.

And that was the key: in those days you bought the autobiographies of people you admired and who led extraordinary lives of achievement. These days it seems you buy the autobiographies of the people you feel sorry for.

Patti Miller, in Writing Your Life – a Journey of Discovery, says “healing” is one reason some people decide to write their life story. “None of us is immune from suffering,” she says. “Writing about such an experience can be a powerful way of reconnecting, of weaving all the pieces of your life back together.”

But Miller also acknowledges “revenge as a motive that is not often confessed to”. “People may feel bitter and malicious and may want to punish those that have hurt them,” she says. But she cautions that such emotions have a way of distorting the writing.

Sometimes this can become pathological. Pat Jordan, who interviewed David Pelzer, author of A Child Called It, in 1994 writes a disturbing account of his obsession with remaining on the New York Times best-seller list. Pelzer even went to the extent of buying 4000 of his own books each year to boost sales and give away at speaking engagements. “It’s not about the books,” he tells Jordan during the interview, “My fans are buying the DNA of Dave.”

I have not read the books mentioned, so don’t know the tone or quality of the writing. I assume that as they are published by a third party they are stories worth telling. Even if they are not, these days it’s never been easier to tell your own story – thanks to blogs like this.

William Gass, writing in Harpers Magazine on The Art of Self: autobiography in the age of narcissim, hits the nail on the head in the headline alone. “Self-absorbtion, we are told, is the principal pre-occupation of our age,” he says.

Gass admits to considering writing his own biogrpahy one day, but asks what many should: “Is it worthy?”

I admit to the same ambition, but having read these titles I now feel disturbingly unqualified.

Like most others, I’ve had my share of pain and disappointment. But is it enough? Perhaps the difference between theirs and mine is not that I have less pain to market but just that I have less confidence in its marketability.

Somehow I’ve always assumed that people wanted to be entertained rather than traumatised. This is especially so in these gloomy economic times.

So did I buy any of these books for my mother?


Now aged almost 82, and having lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War, and most recently an amputation, I reckoned she had suffered enough.

I bought her flowers.

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