Radio 4 Remembered

When I was in my late teens or twenties I heard a programme on Radio 4 which focussed on the experiences of people in their seventies. It was one of a series of programmes looking at how we navigate the decades of our lives. I didn't hear the rest of the series, but very much wish I had.

In the programme much of the discussion centred around downsizing and options related to how people would prepare for the onset of old age and the possibility that they may not want, or be able, to live independently. I was struck at the time (when I was putting all my efforts into building an education, a career and hopefully a family in the future) by the intensity of experience of the septuagenarians. The aspect I recall most clearly was a lady selling the family home and being faced with the daunting prospect of choosing a couple of bits of furniture that would fit into her residential care accommodation. I assumed that her husband had died and she was carefully disposing of the material legacy of their life, in preparation for the challenges of loving a materially (and perhaps emotionally) smaller life on her own.

As I write, I ask myself what exactly was so poignant and memorable about that lady's experience. I feel I can define the two aspects which stayed with me:1 - We never 'arrive'. 2 - The complexity and emotional intensity of the journey doesn't lessen.

So - did gaining a partial understanding of these two points when I was setting out on life have an effect? I'm drawn to saying no. But actually I feel somehow it did. Somewhere I think I realised that it will never be over, that there will always be a need to live to the best of my ability and to cope with the up, down and side-sizing that a long life would demand. I wonder whether the lady on the radio gave me something, by example, which was life-changing? If I knew the sofa was going to have to go one day, could the felt tip scrawled on it now be quite so important? If the box of photos and that special ring or necklace were all I would keep, did it matter how much I had in the mid-term? If memories of picnics gone by would be cherished more than what happened yesterday, should I really prioritise cleaning the house before we go?

I have had the honour to work with ladies and gentlemen in and around their seventies. What has struck me is a) how selfless their generation can be, and b) how unforgiving they can be of themselves. They will sometimes recount a harsh line overheard or criticism made in childhood, or a chance remark made by a 'friend' thirty years ago. For all that they may have given to others or shouldered alone they often retain harsh views about themselves which I strongly maintain should never have been there and were never fair.

Challenging deep-seated, unkind assumptions makes a huge difference to all of us, at any stage of our lives and I think has the same beneficial impact at 7, 17 or 70 - after all it's never over and we have to limber up for the joy and the challenges which lie ahead…

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