I always feel somewhat uneasy whenever I see elderly people out and about; they always give off the impression of being a touch delicate and overwhelmed and so I can’t help but wonder why there isn’t someone to look after them before they get confused, fall over and crumble. As such, surprise did not pounce when my ninety year old grandmother injured her knee and I was duly summoned to Scotland to ensure she was well pampered until daily errands were no longer so challenging. I elected to drive up both as a conscious move to better enable raiding parties on Marks and Spencer – my grandmother’s hunting ground of choice – and as a means of autonomy through what promised to be a less than exciting exercise in duty. It was a week later with the car now awash with Werther’s Original wrappers and a tribe of carrier bags and as we were making our steady way to a Specsavers appointment that we were involved in a traffic accident that sent us down a bank and into a field of potatoes. From the moment the car stopped came a growing realisation of just how robust and fantastic my grandmother can be, and consequently how much I had always underestimated her.
The rain was torrential as we meekly gazed back up at the road from our furrow until the initial ‘did that just happen?’ moment had subsided and I gave way to a less serene array of emotions. My Gran, however, who just half an hour before had taken a frustrating twenty minutes counting through every little piece of paper in her handbag – with commentary – to double check the time of the appointment as she ‘didn’t trust’ the store when I had called up to double check, was already in full crisis-management mode: we need to get out of this field and have a hot cup of tea. Resolutely charming the several kind people who stopped to help, and charging up the steep bank without assistance (leaving those unfortunate weaklings who had attempted to offer it to her to scrabble up behind as best they could), we were whisked away to warmth and sympathy. For the rest of the day she didn’t flicker between joking about other accidents she’d been in and forcibly plying me with milky sweet tea until she felt I was composed enough to talk to the insurance company and see about what needed to be done (after calling Specsavers and making our apologies first, naturally). In all this, she was an absolute rock. Someone who has assumed every mobile phone she’s ever owned is ‘broken’ because she has never been able to work them, who relies on cordless vacuums as the corded ones developed an increasingly malicious habit of tripping her up, and who categorically will not shop at her local supermarket as she believes the manager is ‘foreign’ (his name is Clive and he’s definitely Scottish), nonetheless brushed off an accident that had me whimpering.
She didn’t flag in the days that followed either, insisting I hire a rental car whilst we waited to hear back from the garage about mine, building my confidence through her very faith in my driving. Nor do I doubt that such a consideration was intentional, as despite never articulating any concern there was no doubt she was nervous. Gestures such as gripping the handle whenever we drove round especially tight corners (which is essentially every corner on Scottish B roads), berating any driver who came closer than ten metres to us on the road and, most deliciously, insisting on bringing a flask of tea whenever we went out anywhere ‘just in case’, and which turned out to consistently be a small picnic. As awful as it may sound, in a lot of ways it was this competence and tact that surprised me as far more mundane occurrences have left her flustered. Living alone in rural Scotland and depending on public transport makes her daily routine both limited and limiting, with any variation an exciting novelty. Indeed, her coming to Edinburgh for my graduation ceremony was the first time she had left Aberdeenshire for the best part of ten years and although hardly the most exotic of trips the planning and (over)packing was an event of itself, with the experience undeniably both tiring and disorientating.
This is really the crux of it: we sometimes forget what it feels like to navigate in a world not designed for us. Being easily fatigued by distances suddenly makes what, for me, is a pleasant twenty-minute stroll to the shops into a tiring half hour walk that requires breaks and the return up the hill positively unimaginable with the addition of shopping to carry. Making it to her regular Dr’s appointments involves forward planning to ensure taxis are booked or available to get both there and back or else the appointment has to be rescheduled. Additionally, her experience of having a couple of ‘funny turns’ as she calls them, or ‘passing out’ as is perhaps more accurate, has resulted in her staking out every café near the various bus stops so she can take a break and rehydrate after every trip (both there and back) as well as always carrying a bottle of water. Small habits but both informed by the necessity of planning for the worst that has less resonance outside of her age group. That such precautions are accompanied with a growing forgetfulness adds to the layers of routine and planning that goes into making any jaunt, however brief. It is not something we can easily relate to and it therefore becomes somewhat frustrating when actions that should be straightforward (like breakfast) turn into something of a saga (cold, forgotten bowls of porridge in the microwave and a burnt pan). Yet despite all of this she has adapted and takes it all in her stride, continuing to not only live alone but thrive.
As curious as it may sound, her living alone is the secret to her being able to live alone. However elaborate her daily rituals they are hers, the result of years of habit and preference and it is this drive of routine, this need to get up and do certain things, that has kept her active so long. Her garden is a stunning little oasis that she still maintains herself, the birds that visit it have been doing so for generations thanks to gran’s devotion to feeding them, and her house is full of elaborate and unnecessarily complicated storage systems: these are the things she loves and all would be lost were she to be moved to any other type of accommodation. Despite the strong theory that her longevity can be attributed to no small amounts of sherry and racism, there’s no denying that, however illogical, being able to use the oven as storage and fill spare draws with excessive amounts of soap have also played their parts. To take that away would be to take a fundamental feeling of comfort and familiarity. So despite the ‘funny turns’, extensive medications, and difficulties in getting around, none of these have hindered her from doing anything she has wanted to do – especially when what she has wanted to do involves sherry.
Society can sometimes get so hung up on what the elderly can’t do, that we fail to recognise what they are: both hilarious and utterly deserving of our time. They are the same people who have lived, fought, and travelled for decades, and those experiences have not simply evaporated with the advancing years. It took a minor car accident for me to realise just how much I’d always assumed about my grandmother, and how much of a disservice those assumptions were. As eccentric and opinionated as she continues to be, conspiring at eleven p.m. over sherry and bowls of ice cream reveals how she is also resilient, doting, and endlessly generous.