My inspiration for a good later life
Anna Dixon writes about how her grandmother has again become a source of inspiration to her in her new role as Chief Executive of the Centre for Ageing Better.
According to my Dad, she spent hours leaning over the cot or pram talking to me. As well as absorbing some of her words, he says I also took on something of her spirit.
My grandmother has again become a source of inspiration to me in my new role as Chief Executive of the Centre for Ageing Better. I shared her story at Ageing Better’s recent launch event. Her story struck a chord with many in the room so I thought I would share it more widely.
My grandmother was called Freda. She was born on a farm on the edge of the Lake District. She was an incredibly active young woman in the 1920s. Reading her diary is quite exhausting. On top of her farm duties of making butter and looking after the chickens, she studied at agricultural college. Although she would have made a fine wife to a local farmer, she instead fell in love with my grandfather Herbert who became a teacher. He moved with the family to Ilkley in Yorkshire in the 1950s where he taught at the local Grammar School. He was only a few years off retirement when one wintry day in December they were driving up to the Lakes to the farm to deliver some early Christmas presents. They had a car accident in which my grandfather was killed and my grandmother suffered head injuries. She was in a coma for 6 weeks.
When she woke not only did she have to deal with the loss of her husband (whose funeral she had missed), she had to learn to walk again, to dress and feed herself.
It took six months of rehab in the hospital after the accident until she was able to move home. In the meantime, my parents and siblings had moved in. With the help of hand rails and other aids she was able to climb the stairs, not wanting to repeat her own mother in law’s situation of living in the back room. When I was two years old, nearly five years after the accident, the first sheltered accommodation was built in Ilkley. Freda moved in as the first resident. Although my mother popped in most days and did a lot for her, she felt safe and secure there and had a good deal of independence.
Freda, never one to give up, also taught herself to write with her left hand, took up knitting (mostly bed socks and dishcloths), and travelled alone to Australia and Zambia to visit her grandchildren. Her mind remained incredibly sharp: she continued to win at Scrabble. Despite living on her own she was always in touch with others – running up a long phone bill, popping in to neighbours, or writing an aerogram in her painstaking left handed script. She was often to be seen waving a newly written letter, calling on passers-by to pop it in the post box at the end of the road.
She went on to live for a further 30 years and enjoyed no less than three 90th birthday parties. Although she depended on my Mum for support and could not go out unaccompanied, she found much to give her life purpose and pleasure.
Her life is an example for me of ageing better. It does not necessarily mean being free of disability or illness. It is to feel valued, connected, to be able to give as well as receive, to take decisions and have control over one’s life. Later life has the potential to be a hugely positive time of our lives.
The research we published recently on ‘Later Life in 2015’ highlights the diversity of people’s experiences, with some enjoying their later life despite difficult circumstances and others finding themselves struggling and alone. We want to learn from those people who are thriving and enjoying their later life.