My 91-year-old best friend – what we can learn from old people

Our paths crossed in the local pub in Sydney’s Surry Hills, where she’s been going for happy hour for more than 30 years, near to her home in a housing commission block. I am ashamed to say when I first noticed her, the tiny, shrunken figure sitting in the corner wearing a Rabbitohs top, I thought, “Jeez, what’s that daft oldie doing there?″⁣

It’s sad that we have a perspective that there is a time and place for old people. Nola does not stick to these rules. Somewhere in that frail 43-kilogram body is solid steel. She’s been plagued with health issues her entire life – she has one working eye and a duff leg, like a kind of geriatric pirate – and I think this has fuelled her resilience and determination to do want she wants. She is defiantly out every day, walking and meeting people for exercise and interaction. “Better than looking at the four walls,” she says. “And if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Half the delight of Nola is that she is so subversively fun and naughty, it is an act of rebellion.

A worse idea about old people is that they’ve never been anyone at all. Get talking to Nola and you’ll hear all about a life of adventures. She travelled to London by herself when she was 21 and spent years working and travelling around Europe and North America. The dates are sketchy, but the snapshots are pristine: on a boat wearing a raincoat under Niagara Falls; seeing the fountain in London’s Trafalgar Square frozen solid in winter; having her bum pinched in the Folies Bergere music hall in Paris while watching the cancan dancers.

She grew up in Maroubra and has been a lifelong Souths fan – her house is filled with memorabilia and red and green. You ask her how the Rabbits are going to go on their next game and she’ll say, “We’re gonna smash ’em!” This is not what we expect of old ladies.

Half the delight of Nola is that she is so subversively fun and naughty, it is an act of rebellion. I like to think I share similar traits, and the fact that we have such an unlikely friendship bolsters us – we are united in shaking up the world in a kind of societal mutiny. These shared sensibilities transcend time and age.

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Having said that, life through the lens of an elderly person is saddening and infuriating. The daily hurdles that spring up – an uneven pavement, impatient taxi drivers, the enormous barrier of not having a mobile or the internet – make the world deeply inhospitable.

She accepts help from me more than she did at first. She saw help as a sign of weakness and a loss of independence that would lead her down the path to an aged care home. Now, particularly in navigating the coronavirus world, she’s learnt to see help as sometimes necessary, and something that can come without caveats.

Early on, I worried about getting attached to her, given that we don’t know how long she’s got before she “falls off the perch”, as puts it. But now I feel OK with it. When it happens, it won’t be a tragedy, it will be the end of a life well-lived, which is to be celebrated.

But for now, she keeps telling me she’s not ready to go yet and has too much living left to do. The other day she was talking about how she was having fun with her new cat, who has become much more playful of late. “Maybe the previous owners didn’t play with her,” Nola said. “They must have been elderly.”

The NSW Seniors Festival runs until April 24, seniorsfestival.nsw.gov.au.

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