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At the recent Australian Association of Gerontology conference in Sydney, an anthropologist accused me of being a “dementia denialist” because I question the transference of Western disease models onto non-western people. Considering that most of the research on dementia is done in northern hemisphere countries on white older men, I think it is justified to question if the same gold standard applies to people across the globe. He was angry, accusing me of being like Thabo Mbeki who denied the HIV/Aids pandemic. I was really surprised, yet noticed that he did not want to listen…

My question – it is not a theory yet, just a question – is based on the premise that we are a lot more than our bodily functions, in this case, our brain (dis)function. We are eco-bio-psycho-socio-spiritual beings. We are influenced and determined by so much more than neurological pathways. This reductionist, the biomedical focus has resulted in so much harm through the stripping of our humanness through institutionalisation and medicating the life out of people who mostly need to be integrated and not segregated. The only denialism that I see is the insistence of most of the medical fraternity to deny that there is more to us than just our brain function. The denial of that mystical presence that Desmond Tutu calls “the sacredness of the human Spirit”.

Sitting through presentation after workshop at the AAG conference, I was struck by the constant reference to “quality of life”, and how this equates to being “happy”. Yes, we all are in search of the good life, since the time of Plato. One workshop advocated for a model to engage the community in preventing loneliness. An example was given of an older person who lives alone, is busy the entire day, but is alone after six in the evening. The team was instructed to nd ways to “help” – maybe dinner with friends, a lift club to take him bowling, getting youngsters to visit him, movie nights etc. It is all good and well, but I do get the feeling that we have become obsessed with DOING, feeling guilty and that we have failed older people when we “allow” them to just BE.

As we get older, I do believe that we need to re ect, that we need to do less and enter the mystical world of our own Selves. We progress, we grow towards silent contemplation, finding our inner voice. I can think of nothing worse than constantly being dragged OUT of that place of silent contemplation, meditation or prayer, inner dialogue of Being. Yes, loneliness can be hard. Yet, have we demonised loneliness to the point where people feel a failure if they give in to it? Like “successful ageing” – if you do not look like Jane Fonda at 80 and can jump around like Tina Turner you are a failure, failed at this thing called Life… What is the message that we are promoting – is it defying or affirming?

People living with dementia, and in fact, most older people, will progress in life towards a state of being less active. This does not have to be a curse. Why are we so afraid of this slowing down and turning inward? Is it perhaps because we have simply not built enough resources to sustain us in our old age? We cannot be forever young. There is no reason to run marathons at 80, for goodness sake! Well done to those who can and want to do it! It is ok to sit, do nothing, to BE. Yes, we will get grey and have wrinkles and a weaker bladder, forget names and get confused at the airport. I look at a photograph of myself taken on Friday evening on the beach – I am now 54, grey, I look thin and rake-like, my shoulders are drooping and my ass sagging. That is my 54. I love it.

We must actively resist the “gold standard” of how people should be. Not everyone can be, nor should be, athletes and rock stars in their ageing. Whilst ageing certainly is not all about decline, our focus on youth and beauty makes older people like failures. There is so much to embrace and celebrate about ageing. Top of my list is to not give a shit! It is a wonderful gift that comes with being older. To not feel that I have to impress people, that I have to live up to others’ standards, and that I do not have to prove myself to anyone. The gift of enjoying my own company, of not wanting to go out and conquer the world. To be left alone to my own thoughts, my own company.

We must stop this crazy notion that all old people must be happy and laughing and playing with kids and enjoy bingo and laughing at the clowns and horticultural therapy and music therapy and pet therapy. If anything, THAT will drive me crazy! Do not put me in a place where there are fake doors or pretend pubs or murals that look like a forest. Do not put me in a place where I am forced to participate in silly games or listen to Vera Lynn or where kids come to sing to me. I will be that horrid old man shouting at them. Not because I am a horrible old man, but because I do not want to be patronised. Let me be. Respect my silence, respect my forgetfulness and my sadness. This is how it is now, it is not your job to make me “happy” and try to drag me out of my state of being.

And you know what, try to see ME. I had my time of being young and frivolous, I did all the things I wanted to do. Now I want to be alone perhaps? Try and just be here, there is no need to talk or play or sing songs or play bingo. Maybe I am tired, it has been a long life. Maybe I am sad, but that is fine too. If you really respect me and feel that you have to “help” me, let me be. Don’t make me feel as if I have failed the test of ageing. This is how I do it. There is more to me than remembering your name.

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