Writing About The Elderly

IMG_05803-300x223Hannah, my chocolate Lab, a main character in Where The Trail Grows Faint, will be thirteen next month.  Our forays into the woods have changed, although she still shows me that she wants to go by following me to the door in the late afternoon when I get up from working to head out for a walk.  She waits expectantly, head cocked and tail in furious motion, for me to say, “Okay girl,  come.”   When I open the door to the back seat of my car, she backs up and takes a couple of running steps to be able to make the jump.  Sometimes her back legs don’t quite clear the seat, but she pulls them up behind her.  And I say, “Good jump.  Strong, brave girl.”  Her gait on the flat trail alongside the little river is that of an old dog now; she walks slowly rather than blasting in open-throttle delight, but her tail wide-wags continuously as we progress toward the swimming hole.

My friend Barb and her chocolate Lab, Maggie, usually meet us at one of the trail heads.  The dogs nuzzle faces and check each others’ butts for the news.   These days we try to make Hannah’s walks a bit shorter and give her more swimming time.  She’ll go after a big stick in the pond exactly as she did when she was a puppy, dropping it at my feet then teasing me by snatching it up again before she puts it down so she can bark while she does her old joy dance:  throw it again, throw it again.   She retrieves sticks just as she always has:  dysfunctionally.  She likes to grab them toward one end rather than in the center;  if there’s a decent current, the stick acts like a dragged oar trying to spin her around in the water.  This can be pretty funny; here she is, this beautiful old girl doing her retrieving job, and still doing it in her idiosyncratic, silly way.

Today she swam so much that Barb and I decided I’d take her home before we walked Maggie another couple of miles.   Hannah followed me out of the deep shade of a tree canopy and through an interlude of brilliant sunshine where a thicket of wild roses in all shades of pink and daisies were in the full bloom of early summer.  I kept looking back at her, checking her legs and encouraging her along.  She still walks with no limp although the vet tells me the arthritis in her right paw is bad.  He says she’s a stoic and to take her to the woods as much as she wants to go, to help her keep on keeping on.  Strong girl, brave girl.

I think about Hannah often as I work on a novel about an elderly widow.  I want to let the widow, Louisa, be funny without having the effect be to make fun of her,  to show her frailties, vulnerabilities, and fears without making her an object of pity.  What I’m finding is that the ongoing life of an old age character is really difficult to hit squarely and well.   Many revered novels with an old person as a principal character  are constructed as retrospectives, or focus on life that is happening around the elderly person.  The approach of death is frequently a theme.   Think about Ethan FromAs I Lay Dying, Remains Of  The Day, Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes, Gilead and Tinkers.

But I’m not after a retrospective or the theme of approaching death, although I wonder if  increased time in both memories and concern about death accompanies advancing age and needs to be included in a good literary portrayal.   Still, my protagonist is rebellious and wry-voiced, at odds with an adult son she loves dearly even as he drives her crazy with ridiculous gifts and tries to thwart her mission to get revenge for the death of her grandson, the victim of a drunk driver.  I’ve seen from trying to help family that old age is hard.  My task is to show Louisa’s mounting losses, like the losses we will all endure, doubtless in many forms–and the possibility of remaining vital, funny, strong, and brave.

Has anyone read a good novel in which an old person overcomes rather than succumbs?

8 Responses to Writing About The Elderly

  1. How beautiful, Lynne, that you added the picture 0f Hannah this time, and how poignant her portrait in your words. I don’t know about old people — except in so far as I am an old person, or at least so much older than I used to be, though not nearly as old as I hope to become — but I can tell you that I, for one, think more about aging and death than I used to, and that’s in part because too damn many friends have been getting sick and dying on me, and not all of them very old, either. If I’d read more fiction, I might have a ready reply for your query, but alas I don’t. I’ll give it some thought, though, and if something comes to me I’ll let you know. For now, all I can suggest for your Recommended Reading list is Lewis Carroll’s poem in ALICE — or is it LOOKING GLASS? — “You Are Old, Father William.”

    Also — you might want to look at things from a slightly different angle. Old person triumphs instead of succumbs, you put it. Well, I don’t really think it needs to be “instead of.” Because we all live our lives, long or short, without ever knowing how long or how short, we have our failures, we have our triumphs, we keep going, more failures, more triumphs. And then in the end — which can come to us young or old — we succumb. If you want your old gal to triumph, let her triumph. And let the succumbing take care of itself, which inevitably it will, as it will for all of us.

    Just a thought.

    Postscript: Dylan Thomas wrote an unproduced screenplay based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Beach of Falesa,” and when the villain lies mortally wounded, Thomas has him musing aloud that that day happens to be his birthday. “Do you know how old I am?” he asks, and dies. The protagonist says to the corpse, “You’re very old, now.”

    • What a good take! And I’ll take a look at Father William. Thank you so much. Of course you’re right about the ultimate outcome; what I’m looking for is quality fiction with an elderly protagonist that isn’t a retrospective or about approaching death, but primarily about ongoing life, that “failures and triumphs” part you mentioned. If something come to mind, let me know. And thanks again!

  2. What came to my mind when I read your article, and enjoyed the photo of your dog swimming, was the recollection of my grandmother and her adherence to swimming laps in a pool, nearly up until the day she died. She never swam fast — it was a leisurely breaststroke, at best — but her enthusiasm for getting out in the world, exercising and meeting people, never diminished. I think that as people age, their potential frailties and fears only ride the surface of their personalities if they allow those emotions to bubble up. As the previous commentor stated, we never know how long we have. My husband, who is an oncologist, recommends living each day to its fullest.

    I have a poem, I believe one I clipped from “Dear Abby” years ago, pinned to my pantry bulletin board. Being a poet, you probably know its provenance. It goes like this:

    For some kind word I do not say
    A heart goes lonely on its way.
    Those words of praise I do not speak
    May make another’s courage weak.
    My friendly thought I do not share
    May leave another in despair.
    The words that burn, the hurt that sears,
    May live to haunt me through the years.
    What loads I lift, what joy I spread
    May live long after I am dead.

    Age doesn’t matter. It’s how we live, our whole life long, that is what counts. There are elderly people I know who, as they age, become ruder, less caring of the effect of their words. Age is simply a number; how we handle that number is what personality is all about.

    • It’s certainly true that no one knows how long s/he has. Your story about your grandmother gives a lovely image of a vital and engaged elderly person. It’s interesting how few novels depict the ongoing life of old people, though. And the issues of their daily lives are surely different than those of the young and the middle aged. I imagine their inner lives are quite different, also. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. It is indeed hard to think of a novel about an elderly person that is not a retrospective, sometimes full of regret over lost opportunities. Not that I dislike those. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, one of my favorite novels, is such a complex work, the butler having never taken advantage of the proffered love of the head housekeeper and unwittingly supported the Nazis in his loyalty to his employer. And GILEAD has that poignant theme of love for the young wife combined with jealousy of the suitor the elderly husband has chosen to take his place.

    The one active, elderly character I can think of, one whose back story is not central to the work, is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. She goes about the business of poking her nose into adventure as if she has years and years ahead of her. I can’t think when she’s ever thought about her own death, though the deaths of others are her obsession.

    I wonder if this is a relatively new thing, this business of being spry into advancing years, a product of medical technology. With Social Security in a financial crisis our grandparents didn’t anticipate, who knew that we wouldn’t be dying within five years of retirement, that advancing age would bankrupt the government system? Likewise, it is no surprise that there are few “instruction manuals” on how to grow old actively, with intention to maintain a productive lifestyle.

    I love this project!

    • I never would have thought of Agatha Christie, but you’re right. My task is, I think, to have a full and meaningful backstory so that Louisa is a complex character–and her motivations clear–but the book not be about her past nearly as much as it is about what she is doing now. And some of her activities may resemble Miss Marple just enough that I should read some Christie. Thanks for a great idea.

    • Wish I could count how many of my best thoughts have blipped off into the cyberspace. Please try again when you muster the patience! And thank you!

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