Jeanne Ellin: Notes from an Older Woman, Weeks 1-5

Jeanne Ellin: Age Shall Not Wither Her

jeanne ellinJeanne Ellin is a 68 year old poet living on the basic pension, in sheltered accommodation, with Little Cat Friday and a menagerie of chronic health conditions for companions. Her ambition is to live a happy, satisfying, creative life. Join her for her journey through 2016.

“What is it like to be old?”

I told them it was a real adventure. Scary, uncomfortable, uncertain, with real Dragons and real Treasure.

1 Jan 2016: Shipwrecked

The shipwreck happened, a health crash that meant early retirement and was followed by several other diagnoses over the next two years. A positive menagerie of conditions all requiring care and attention. M.E. is the main protagonist, aided and abetted, amongst others, by diabetes, coeliac disease and high blood pressure. But I refuse to allow them to become a hobby.

With the arrival of chronic illness, any hope of topping up my basic pension with other earnings faded.

shipwreck on beachSo here I am, Jeanne Ellin, facing old age without the buffers of good health or comfortable cash.

I do not recall signing up for this challenge. I wanted the adventure holiday. You know – the cruise with the full service, fine dining, optional mini-safari. Not to mention that handsome man of suitable age wearing a tux and posing against a backdrop of stars.

In fact, what I really wanted was to continue working as a poet, with more residencies, some abroad, and hopefully some more festival appearances.

Yet here I am, somewhere different, but I will accept. A real adventure! Uncomfortable, uncertain, with surprises along the way.

Shipwreck can happen to anyone. It is always unexpected, traumatic and life changing. Health, finances or relationships can founder. You find yourself marooned on unexpected shores, and realize that rescue will not happen. We will pass over the grief, anger and denial. You can imagine that for yourselves.

As a shipwreck survivor I am fortunate to have the company of others though we have little in common beyond our survival. As a survivor I realise I will have to have new goals, set myself up to win. Work out what can be saved from the wreck, what new things can be created from the wreckage?

I am committed to making a positive, creative and satisfying life for myself. In these posts I want to be honest, share the truth of my life without moaning.

I am not a victim and do not see myself as one. I am an adventurer and invite you to share the adventure with me.

8 Jan 2016: The joys of the online world

A trip out, my first for ten days, albeit to the doctor. These days, getting an appointment to see a doctor the same day feels like winning the lottery. I remembered to phone in the narrow time-window for same day appointments, got past the receptionist’s stern, vetting procedures to be awarded the chance to speak to a real live doctor. My croaky tones persuaded him to see me.

cobwebThe sun was shining and my six-inch stride gave me time to admire a cobweb wonder. Three layers with spider sized gaps between and each layer with its own sparkling dew drops.

Felt better for having got up and dressed but the doctor said it would be at least another week before I really feel better.

If there are to be more snakes than ladders in this game I will strap on crampons and walk up the snakes!

So time to find positive things to think about. Not much to read as my home book service is now delivered by a volunteer. In many ways this is better, a chance for bookish chats with another reader. The downside is she can’t deliver crates of books like the library could and she is away at the moment.

So I turn to my computer. Facebook. That magic gateway to the world. I have Facebook friends of all ages from all round the world. I belong to several writing groups, poetry, flash fiction and longer writing with such supportive feedback and the chance to learn from other writers. Tonight I’m hoping to take part in a timed writing exercise.

Another great thing about Facebook is the access to news and social concerns. One small sign up makes me part of a caring group. There are often positive outcomes to read about. I relish the human contact and wider perspective this group gives me.

Have found a secret shopper site and have applied stating my interest in telephone and on-line opportunities.

coffee barEmail brings me another survey from a company. They cover a variety of topics and also offer a discussion forum and the chance to see the survey results. Sometimes the topics are boring – washing powders and takeaways; sometimes they are interesting to me. Questions around medicine, politics or even ethics. This time the topic is coffee machines and coffee shops. Both a luxury I can’t afford. But at least it is an opportunity to hone concentration and keep my keyboard fingers nimble.

I am very committed to keeping my outlook open and flexible. My biggest dread is to become narrow-minded, focused on small setbacks or keeping grudges like cherished pets.

I have a list of other ideas to explore when I feel more alert. I want to learn to use Skype to help support young people learning English – a sort of grandmother thing.

A Facebook friend and I are hosting an online event exploring people’s experiences of invisible disability. This is a new venture and we are learning as we go. We found that our experiences have much in common though one of us has a physical disability and the other mental health concerns.

Another thing I have on my To-do List is to look at the free online courses that the OU offer. I plan to try to do a couple of hours a week. If I can maintain this I could consider a part-time course.

robinOh, I nearly forgot. Birdwatching too. Perhaps a pair of second-hand binoculars for Christmas and a bird recognition book would make a good project.

Even just writing this list I am feeling more positive, reminding myself how much there is to do and learn even within my small flat.

So feeling more positive. So many more things to do and to be. So much to look forward to.

15 Jan 2016: Books and Babies

My book bearing volunteer is back. Hurrah! She arrived this afternoon despite the rain and cold bearing two full bags. She has no car and a busy life. We had a wonderful bookish chat – she is a writer too. Such a refreshment to talk about books, swap recommendations and discuss our writing. A real high spot in my week.

After she leaves, I pile my booty according to author and topic and gloat. The serious research books on world embroidery are for a poetry project. I want to build a glossary of embroidery terms to use in a series of poems. The deadline for submissions is April. I must keep a close eye on that. Deadlines can feel a long way off then arrive too suddenly, almost unexpected.

The rest of my booty is not high-minded at all. More mental candy floss for when brain is sluggish or I need minor pain relief. Simple plots are easier to follow. In romance the ending is always happy and the plot is a simpler track than more challenging novels. I do enjoy historical fiction and crime set in foreign lands. An easy and enlightening journey into another culture. Just in the middle of White Heat by M J McGrath. It’s set in the Arctic with an Inuit woman as crime solver. It’s good.

jeanne's grandsons baby boysJust made a visit to my daughter and grandsons. She has had no sleep for three nights as the twins are teething and infected. Two ten minute walks and a bus trip. I totter out, balance worse than usual today after so many days in. I’m bearing grapes and dates. Also Vicks for chesty small people. Find them all in a sorry, fretful state. Am glad I made the effort. Daughter was able to wash, dress and eat while I offered arms and lap for small, unhappy people. No smiles or giggles today. They are feeling rotten.

Balance poor, so lifting boys a scary operation and even making and carrying drinks takes careful concentration. But so glad to be even a little help.

A moment of laughter. Our shy boy decided that today his efforts deserved applause. He placed one block on another and catching our eyes clapped his hands. We took the hint. Then he knocked the bricks down and paused for more applause. He seems very taken with giving and receiving feedback. When his mother sang a nursery rhyme he clapped her first song choice. After the second song, he just turned and tottered away with that characteristic nappy swagger.

After being clad only in nappies all morning, both boys resisted the idea of getting dressed. It not being a day for battles, we left them till our quiet boy decided to raid his clothes chest and come back with his new trainers. With great difficulty he was persuaded to wear socks. Then we found that he only wished to wear one shoe. He spent several happy minutes walking unevenly up and down, the lights in the heel of his trainer sparkling as his mother and I laughed.

His brother contented himself with eating grapes, seedless, one in his mouth and one in each hand for efficiency.

I leave after four hours. Daughter has had several drinks and lunch and got tea cooked. I need to have enough energy to get home. Home by two thirty. Get ready for bed as I know co-ordination will worsen. Good that I made soup yesterday with the chicken wing bones. That is evening meal sorted with some fresh fruit and a drink of nut milk. Two of my favourite television programs to enjoy. In bed by nine pm. No problem getting to sleep.

22 Jan 2016: Little Cat Friday

Little Cat FridayMy closest companion is Little Cat Friday, an eccentric tabby of uncertain temper, erratic digestion and unsocial habits. She is a rescue cat. The charity looking after her was not even posting her on their website because of her temperament. Since I could not then offer a garden or lively company I asked for a cat who might not otherwise be homed. I had experience with cats including fostering ferals.

This proved a trump card. She came and was decanted straight into a cupboard with litter tray then food and water on the next level and bedding above. She vanished from sight and for two weeks. I just replenished food and water and tended the litter tray. I stood outside the cupboard and spoke several times a day, so she could get used to my voice and smell. Then I began to get glimpses, like watching a fan dancer, an ear here, a paw there. She emerged and sat between me and the door to the cupboard for a couple of weeks. I gave her so much positive reinforcement that she thought her name was Good Little Cat and began to answer to it.

Good Little Cat did not seem enough of a name for the vet so she became Good Little Cat Friday.

A wonderful companion, sitting on my chest on nights when I am in pain. Bringing down my blood pressure when medication does not. She and my diabetes motivate me to get up on sluggish mornings. Little Cat Friday needs to be fed and so do I if I wish to avoid a hospital visit.

Doctors now prescribe exercise. I wish they could prescribe a pet. The benefits are great and the costs small. Many older, more sedate cats are languishing and would make suitable pets for older people. I am fortunate to have been given permission to keep a cat in sheltered accommodation. I needed to have arrangements in place for her care if I die, to avoid hassle and expense for the housing association, but also to protect her.

old manBefore I met Little Cat Friday, she had been living with an old man in his flat. It is not clear whether he even realised she was there. Certainly when he was admitted to hospital and then died no-one else was aware of her. Three weeks later, when the council came to clear his flat, they found her surviving on kitchen waste, scrawny and scared. She was ill then showed such anti-social behaviour that the charity hadn’t even put her up for rehoming.

This legacy shows in her reluctance to visit the vet. After some experimentation, chopped up chicken placed in the carry basket lures her in with minimal damage. Then we can be driven to the vet by the charity she came from. They still support me when it is time to go to the vet as I cannot carry her. Little Cat Friday meeps pathetically the whole way.

To have the comfort of touch in stroking her, to have her trust me enough to sit on my lap is a great joy when there are so many days when I touch no-one.

29 Jan 2016: Gratitude vs. Self-Pity

hippo in mudYes, I can and do walk mostly, but like the little mermaid when she gained legs, every step is taken with painful concentration. If concentration lapses, my feet have a tendency to tangle with each other. Sometimes I dig my nails into my palms to keep focused.

I am confined to a slow and stately pace with an erect stance as I need to keep my head steady to avoid dizziness. I have a very slow shuffle, a six-inch stride. It was measured for an assessment. The nearest you can get to marking time while still moving forward! I am a procession of one.

Since this is unchangeable I have decided to turn it into a challenge: to find something new and interesting on each walk. It gives me a focus and an excuse to stop. It also gives me the chance to hone my descriptive writing practice. And it helps me find things to be grateful for which is an important part of the happiness habits I’ve been practising for the last 18 months.

All I can say is that they work for me. Generally I am happier.

But today I am having a hippo-like wallow in the mud of self-pity, blowing foul smelling bubbles!

Last month I heard about a workshop on memoir writing combined with crafts. A FREE one day event run by the University. But reluctantly I decided, that as I was in relapse, I would not manage a whole day. Not something I could do. I put it from my mind.

Then on Monday I got an email saying the course had been shortened to half a day, this Wednesday. I could manage a half day. But not at short notice. Not this Wednesday. Possible if I had more prep time – three clear rest days and meals made for the day and the three following days, and I would have to go out and draw money for the taxi, small things but they all have an energy cost. With less than 48 hours notice it is just not possible. So I had to work through the disappointment again.

toddler wailingLike any bereavement, loss of health has its ebbs and flows, small events can trigger the grief again. I know that the cost to my health would be too great AND I WANT IT NOT TO BE TRUE. I miss being spontaneous.

I find if I allow myself to feel the negative emotions, they pass quicker, as if holding them back is also holding on. So I’ve had my little tantrum and am beginning to feel better. Imagine having it in a supermarket aisle like a truculent toddler!

Toddlers have spectacular tantrums but they recover their good humour so quickly. They express what they feel and let it go.

5 Feb 2016: A Good Week

I am triumphant. I have been to an exhibition! The first such outing for over three years. This had to be planned like a military expedition. Meals pre-cooked for the day and two days after. Transport booked and extra quiet days before. Just basic feeding and watering for me and Little Cat Friday.

Felt so good after the exhibition that I ventured as far as a café and had black coffee and a small salad. First lunch out for years. Taxi back. Fruit and soup for supper and very early bed. Undressed by five pm as if I get too tired I can become marooned in my clothes and sadly the fire brigade is not available for such emergencies.

My other delight this week is that I have blagged my way onto some interesting volunteering opportunities. One is a committee looking at issues of loneliness and isolation for older people. I said that though I could not attend, I could read and comment on matters and offer a relevant perspective. They agreed and feel I could have a particular role in selecting groups for funding, as I would ask pertinent questions.

The other opportunity is to engage with medical students and discuss the ageing process with them. I thought this sounded like fun and have now had my first meeting with the group. A delightful set of young people. I sat in on them discussing the pros and cons of ageing. Then they asked me about my personal experience of old age.

What is it like to be old?

mapI told them it was a real adventure. Scary, uncomfortable, uncertain, with real Dragons and real Treasure. They picked up the role-play game reference and asked me more about it. I said like role-play you started with the resources you’d gained from previous levels, for example, resilience and determination.

They asked what was the best part of getting older and I said the wide perspective.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time and look forward to seeing them again.

To read the next instalment from Jeanne, click here.