12 June 2009

His brow is deeply lined with thought

My grandfather finally came out of hospital on Wednesday, tired from his ten day stay, but basically given a clean bill of health. The last few days have been strange for me, spending so much time with my grandparents has forced me to confront old age, a concept/reality that at times actually terrifies me.

On my fathers side my grandmother lived until her early nineties, though suffered from at least two forms of cancer. My grandfather lived until his mid-nineties and was playing nine holes of golf every day until his last year; On my mother's side my great-grandmother lived to her late-eighties before suffering a fatal fall, and both my grandparents are still alive in their mid-eighties.

My grandmother reads voraciously, visiting the library once a week and going though about three books between each visit, as well as doing the Irish Times Simplex crossword every morning. My grandfather follows the Irish, US and UK political scene religiously, and between television and the radio absorbs at least three hours of news coverage over the course of the day.

I have never smoked, am an occasional drinker, have a reasonably healthy BMI, and apart from a manageable genetic predisposition to high-cholesterol there is very little that my doctor has ever been concerned about. Barring the unforeseen health risks from near constant exposure to mobile phone radiation and wifi networks that will no doubt be the "asbestos/nicotine/mercury" scares for our generation, I have always assumed that I will enjoy a similar longevity.

I am not sure though if "enjoy" is the correct word to use. What shocked me over the last few days is the sheer amount of medication required to allow my grandparents to continue functioning, a pharmacological cornucopia of stimulants and depressants, controllers and regulators that operate in a fine balance, with changes to any single part of their regime capable of drastically altering their alertness, cognition, and even their entire personality. My grandfather was supposed to leave the hospital on Monday, however as he had been proscribed an iron supplement, they had to keep him in longer than expected as they had to slowly readjust the levels of all the other medication he was on to accommodate this new element being thrown into the mix.

I was present for a number of visits by the specialists who were treating him, each visit lasting no more than 2-3 minutes, and again was shocked by lack of information he received about what course of treatment he was receiving, and why that particular course of action was being proscribed. Little detail was given on the numerous procedures that had been performed on him, and there was no attempt at offering after-care advice on what he should do when he got home, such as life-style or dietary changes. The only outcome of his ten days in hospital seems to have been a longer list of prescription medications to be taken throughout the day, every day, for the rest of his life.

My grandparents' house, the house that I grew up in, is perched on top of hill. It took my grandfather ten minutes to walk up the garden path, with numerous stops at each corner of the steeply inclined path. Their bedroom is at the top of a double flight of stairs, the bathroom halfway up, with more stairs between the kitchen and drawing room. And yet they manage it all as they have done so every day for the last fifty years that they have lived there. But the question in all of our minds is how long can they continue to do so.

The simple fact is that humans are not designed to live as long as we currently do, and the sheer technological, pharmaceutical and environmental effort required to support this increased longevity at times terrifies me. So much effort each day is spent on just ensuing that you get to the next day, to begin the process all over again that I wonder when (and if) I reach an age that such an effort is required, will there be enough joy and happiness in my life to justify that effort?

Pictured above is one of our family cats, born two years before I started my Leaving Certificate exams. That makes him twenty years old this year, or approximately 96 in human years. Although he sleeps more than he used to and is a bit thinner, he still runs, purrs and hops up onto chairs, following me about throughout the house in the hope that I will throw him a bit of food when no-one else is looking. He seems happy and content, has no regime of pills or tablets, an still manages to convey the same sense of scorn and sarcasm as he did aged two.

When I am old, I think I want to be a cat.

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