Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Rural Approach

Having worked with the elderly for many years, I am always interested in how other countries and cultures look after their seniors.

In small-town France, where I have just spent two weeks visiting family, there is a very clear understanding; getting older means just forging ahead while changes come about on their own and making as little fuss about those changes, as possible.

Case in point: my 83-year old mother-law, quite creaky now and slower than I've ever seen her, still lives independently in a five bedroom house. She has no intention of going anywhere else and doesn't see why she should. It takes her a little longer to get things done. She falls asleep more often during the day. No big deal, she is functioning at a level she can manage and deriving enormous pleasure from her days.

Her 90-year old neighbour, a woman who is legally blind and who now needs help deciphering her mail, also remains alone in her family home. She can be seen, early every Tuesday morning, trotting out to bring the garbage to the curb for pick-up. Both women still shop for their own food and depend on one another for moral support. "Ah, ma pauvre" is a lament often heard, a sentiment which is meant to express sympathy but not pity for all the things about life you can't change. Aging is seen as a normal process and there is no special focus placed on the specifics until an illness comes along which permanently alters the course of someone's life.

So why is it seemingly much less complicated to grow old in rural France than in Canada?

For one thing, they have much more forgiving winter weather than we do. No slipping and sliding on icy sidewalks and the worst of their winter is usually done by February, when the daffodils start to bloom. Another reason might be that people are very open to taking homeotpathic remedies for their common ailments with less debilitating side effects. Finally, there is less interest in how one looks than here, where we are constantly bombarded with ads for products that will make us look younger. I'm not saying the French, don't use lotions and potions like the rest of us. I'm saying that in the small town where my family lives, women seem to have a healthy dose of acceptance about their appearance and their age and they keep on contributing to their family life in whatever way they can which in turn gives them a sense of still being useful.

On the last day of our visit, my mother-in-law was hobbling around in her cluttered and inefficient old kitchen. She was making a tiramisu for a friend down the road who had just come out of hospital.  It took an entire morning to make it and most of the afternoon to deliver, but by the time she was in her chair having a little nap my husband and I could see how she and her elderly neighbours are still a vibrant part of their community.

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