As a person becomes older, certain changes in structure and function of the individual take place. This process is known as ageing. It is this ageing process that causes a person to become elderly, sometimes stopping the individual from doing everything they use to be able to do. To develop a greater understanding of what it means to become elderly, I interviewed an elderly person Frank, finding out his own personal experiences of growing old. When asked about his background Frank explained how he moved to England from Ireland during the war the war in 1943.
His previous work experiences were extremely active working on the runways outdoors and labouring at Manchester ship canal until the docks closed down in 1982 when he had to begin taxi driving. These were all strenuous occupations keeping Frank fit and healthy allowing him to work into his late seventies. He explained the only reason for retirement was old age, which stopped him from feeling safe driving at night or in busy periods, therefore stopping him from being able to drive the taxi. Frank explained how he enjoyed spending his time after retirement, looking after his garden and nearby allotment keeping himself active.
He explains how he is not as lively as he was in his earlier years as a hip operation 10 years ago stopped him from being as mobile as he used to be. The operation allowed him to continue a fairly energetic lifestyle but made it difficult to travel long distances on foot. He believes this is one of the disadvantages of being elderly as he feels more house bound, not walking as much as he used to therefore not being able to travel round as easily. Frank bought the nearby allotment after retirement to keep himself occupied but he feels over the last few years he does not have as much energy as he did at the beginning, having to rest often.
This is due to the fact that throughout life we lose nerve and body cells that are not replaced. This general degeneration of the body and nervous system causes the ageing process. Muscles shrink and waste away which causes the elderly to lose their strength and agility and become tired more easily (Ageing Today pg3). Frank still has an active social life, meeting close friends at the pub most nights where he plays cards and talks about daily activities. His social life is not as lively as it used to be though, as he finds himself not keeping in touch with as many people.
He now only mixes with his own age group whereas he had friends of various ages in his younger years. He explains how he likes to socialise a lot less as he gets tired more easily. He still enjoys having discussions with those of his own age but does not always understand the younger generation so finds it difficult to with hold conversation with them. Frank’s hip operation has made him feel less flexible and less mobile than he used to be, stopping him from having as active a social life as he used to. When walking to the allotment or to the pub he sometimes uses a walking stick, which helps him to continue his leisure interests.
Since retiring, Frank has been able to spend more time with his family. He enjoys entertaining his grandchildren of which he has fourteen. It is often said that older people can relate better to their grandchildren than their children (Helping Older People pg136). This fills much of his spare time and allows him to feel needed, as a responsible adult. Sometimes basic skills such as reading and writing are difficult to apply by the elderly. When I asked Frank about this he replied that he read the newspaper every evening but he did not do much writing anymore.
This is not because he had difficulty doing so but there was no cause to do so as often. Frank is still able to drive. He has recently become a member of the Orange Badge Scheme, which allows elderly people to park more easily by relaxing certain rules and regulations. They can park for an unlimited time at meters and restricted parking areas and may have free parking at certain places of interest (Ageing Today pg47). The Orange Badge Scheme disc is supplied by the local Social Services Department and Frank says is one of the advantages of growing older. Frank does not find driving as easy as he used to.
He now only drives short distances, as he does not feel comfortable driving in the dark or for long periods of time as he becomes tired. He believes this is a disadvantage of being elderly, becoming tired more quickly, preventing him from undertaking activities for long periods or having to slow down certain actions. He found it difficult accepting that he was unable to drive as often as he may like to and it took much persuading from his family. When he visited Ireland last summer his son regularly took over the driving so that the pressure was not just on him and he did not find himself becoming tired.
Frank likes to be independent though, having his own freedom and making his own choices that sometimes do not agree with that of his family. It can be difficult for the elderly person and the family members to cope with these role changes. For example the child who used to look to the parent for help and support finds him/herself taking on the role of the carer, whilst the ageing parent has to take on the role of the dependent. Many older people do not want to be a burden on their family and wish to be independent for as long as possible before seeking some other form of care. (Ageing Today pg9).
There are no easy answers to help cope with these problems, but the general beliefs that the elderly still have a right to be responsible for themselves as far as possible, and are still valued members of society, are vital when decisions are being made. Another recognized aspect of becoming elderly is that hearing and eyesight may deteriorate. Long-sightedness may develop as soon as the early 40s. People who have previously had good eyesight may now need reading glasses because of changes in the eye due to ageing, and those who have worn glasses because of short-sightedness may need to wear bifocals.
It also becomes increasingly difficult for the elderly to distinguish between certain colour hues, particularly blues and greens, and it takes them longer to adjust between light and dark. (Ageing Today pg5). Frank stated that to help his eyesight he now has to wear glasses for short distances but he believes his long distant vision is quite good. Change in vision is to be expected as we grow older, but there are other more serious disorders such as cataracts or glaucoma that may affect the eyesight of the elderly. Cataracts are very common in old age, and occur when the lens becomes clouded which prevents light from reaching the retina.
Glaucoma occurs when pressure from the fluid in the eye builds up (Ageing Today pg16). Unfortunately Frank has not experienced any of these problems but has had a few companions who have had operations to cure these disorders. Hearing may deteriorate as you become elderly as there will be a gradual high frequency loss after the age of 40, but this may not be noticed until many years later. The cause of this hearing loss is thought to be a loss of elasticity and a loss of hair cells in the inner ear, as these are both vital elements in transferring the sounds heard from the ear to the brain along the auditory nerve.
Hearing may be improved by having the ears syringed, but if the problem is untreatable, the person may be advised to have a hearing aid (Ageing Today pg5). Frank has regular hearing checks and his ears often syringed but he has no major problems with his hearing; he sometimes finds it difficult if there are to many people talking at once as it is difficult to concentrate on all people but generally has good hearing. Frank explained that he has to visit the doctor more frequently since growing older. He regularly goes to obtain fixed medication and feels comfortable visiting his doctor as they are always helpful and supportive.
Frank feels he does not need home help at the moment as he lives with his wife so they support themselves. It is usually best for the elderly to stay in their own homes and be independent; this way they can keep their self-respect and dignity. In order to be independent, the elderly need reasonably good health, a suitable home and any social support that is necessary. The services responsible for providing this support are the Social Services Department and The District Health Authority, which form the Community Care Team (Ageing Today pg26).
Community care means: ‘providing the right level of intervention and support to enable people to achieve maximum independence and control over their own lives. For this aim to become a reality, the development of a wide range of services is essential. ‘ (White paper, caring for people, department of health, 1989). Frank explains that they have regular visits from community care assistants, who come to make sure that the family are coping and are not in need of any assistance.
Frank was very impressed with their help in getting a handrail built free of charge leading up to the door as the steep steps were causing difficulty at night and a bath rail upstairs as getting into the bath safely was demanding. The use of equipment and adaptations can help the disabled person live and independent life in his/her own home so that they only need help and support from family, friends, and the domiciliary services. There is a vast range of equipment available. The community care assistants are always available so he therefore feels he has a great deal of support whenever needed.
The community care assistant also provides a social role, giving the elderly client someone to talk to. As the community care assistants know the clients they are in a good position to report any mental or physical deterioration, so close liaison with a social worker is vital. Some of the provision that the Social services Department provide are meals-on-wheels, laundry services, aids and adaptations for the elderly people, day-care provision, homecare, good neighbour schemes, luncheon clubs, night sitters, welfare rights officers and occasionally domiciliary occupational therapists (Ageing Today pg26).
Frank has not used any of these provisions yet but he feels he may do in the future. A stereotypical view of an elderly person includes memory difficulties. Certainly marked memory changes are the main feature of the most distressing and disabling mental illnesses of old age, namely the dementias. These conditions are at the heart of our notions of senility and constitute one of the greatest fears of ageing (Helping older people pg13). When I asked Frank about his memory he believed it to be quite good.
He finds himself writing down appointment and messages more than he used to in fear of forgetting them but he does not have any major memory problems. Not all elderly people suffer from dementia. In fact only 10% of people aged over 65 suffer and only 20% of people aged over 80 suffer (Helping older people pg13). Memory and intellect do change but it is not a simple picture of steady and accelerating decline. Brain cells, unlike most other tissue such as skin or muscle, so not regenerate, once stopped growing the number of brain cells does not increase but only gets less. Some sort of decline would therefore seem inevitable.
Nevertheless there is good evidence that many people maintain full brain function into advanced old age (Helping older people pg14), which is what Frank was managing to do. Recently, Frank has learnt to be more relaxed and enjoy his family company. Being a very active person he finds it difficult to slow down and constantly likes to be doing something. He has come to terms with the ageing process though and feels lucky to still be able to do the amount he can. After seeing many of his closest friends pass away, he lives each day as it comes valuing the time he has left with those closest to him.