That Which Should Accompany Old Age

Espinas - Hamlet of Flouquet

Few hamlets like this are fully occupied these days, but a few elderly folk may cling on

Yesterday, we visited our elderly neighbour, whose wife died nearly two years ago. We often feel guilty that we don’t visit more often, but Monsieur F is almost 90 and now rather frail. He is very difficult to understand, even after 20 years’ acquaintance: the combination of the local accent and his absence of teeth don’t help. He is also hard of hearing and we have to converse through my husband, since our neighbour can’t hear my lighter voice.

Monsieur F is fortunate in some ways, more so than many others. The whole hamlet is occupied by the same family: Monsieur F still lives in the main farmhouse, his sister-in-law owns the house over the road, one son has built himself a bungalow nearby and the granddaughter, her husband and two small children have recently converted the bergerie into a dwelling. His physical needs are catered for: an aide ménagère comes three times a week, cleans the house and prepares his meals.

Attitude to old age

And yet Monsieur F admitted to us before Christmas that he feels lonely. He believes that being older than his wife, he should have died first. And he told us that, apart from his family, the only visits he gets are from us and another person who lives here part-time. I felt upset on his behalf. He has lived in the area all his life and knows just about everyone, but none of them spares half-an-hour to come to talk to him.

They seem to have written him off. It is clearly not the custom to visit elderly neighbours, whose age and infirmity must be swept under the carpet or simply left to the family to sort out. Worse, he seems to have written himself off. He rarely ventures outside, even onto the covered balcony, and often stays in bed late in the morning. He has consigned himself to what I call God’s waiting room.

A useful role

Formerly, things were different in rural areas. Generations of families lived in the same house. While this might sometimes have been cramped and difficult, at least it gave the older people a function. The grandparents helped out where they could, taught the younger ones what they knew and were a fount of wisdom and local knowledge. In return, they were looked after when they grew infirm. Farrebique, the documentary we saw recently, shot in Aveyron in the late 1940s, showed that this social model was still going strong.

Things have changed. The land employs vastly fewer hands now, people move away to find jobs and the old people are left behind – hence the growth in the number of maisons de retraite.

Fount of local knowledge

Monsieur F is one of the last of a vanishing breed. He lived through World War II and has probably seen more change in the past 90 years than his forebears did in a thousand. He is a living repository of knowledge about rural life as it was. Yesterday, apart from the awful weather, which is the main topic of current conversation hereabouts, we talked about some of the things that have changed, simple things, such as la chasse (hunting) and what eau de vie was made from locally (one man used figs, we heard, and not the customary plums).

On other occasions, we’ve talked about the change in the weather from when he was a boy (much more snow then), how the fashion for taking apéritifs is relatively new and what they did to celebrate Christmas when he was young. These are not subjects of earth-shattering significance, but they give us a glimpse of a way of life that has all but disappeared.

Of course, these topics may not be of great interest to local people. And, if they don’t visit our neighbour, who knows what tensions and disputes might be at the root of it? We know very well that French local politics run along fault lines of personal enmity or amity that go back generations. Wartime denunciations still rankle among families when the protagonists are long dead. Step on those viper’s nests at your peril.

Even so, I think it’s a pity that someone like Monsieur F, who is endowed with intelligence, shrewdness and humour, still, should spend the last part of his life feeling isolated. And there are no doubt many more like him.

The Shakespeare scholars among you will recognise the quotation in the title from Macbeth. I had intended to write this post anyway, but by a strange coincidence fellow blogger Osyth, who is also implanted in France, wrote a post along similar lines this week. I always enjoy reading her blog, which is sensitive and insightful.

Dying sunflowers

Sunflowers past their best

You might also like:

Monsieur C – One of a Dying Breed
A Film Record of an Aveyron Family Post-World War II
A Local Eccentric  

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About nessafrance

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.
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25 Responses to That Which Should Accompany Old Age

  1. Two scenarios for you.
    I live in a village where the “elderly” are in the majority. Opposite me is one lady who seldom is seen outside her house and her only visitor is a once a week visitor from her son to deliver her a load of logs. I have tried to talk to her on the rare occasions I see her at her door but whether it’s because I’m foreign or I just look dodgy she scuttles inside as soon as she sees me heading in her direction. thankfully, it’s not just me tho’, she doesn’t appear to want to engage with anyone and even Evelyn our postlady usually gets on side with anyone and she explained that Mme is a bit shy, likes to read and listen to the radio and is not fussed about visitors.

    Next door to her, by contrast, is Josette a sprightly eighty something. Members of her extended family visit nearly every weekend. She takes the village bus for a market day shop with a gaggle of other be-hatted and warm-coated ladies; she participates in all the Foyer activities and we can spend an hour together (when she can find the time) to natter about the old days in the village but she does confess that she would like more time to herself …to compose her thoughts.

    As one who falls into (I will whisper this once and only once) the old category I’m not sure where I sit in this debate. I lean naturally to the introspective and to solitude and could imagine getting on my huffy high-horse if someone insisted on breaching that.
    I guess, as with most things in life, approach with an open ears, heart and mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Clearly, not everyone is the same and not all people want folk turning up and interfering. We wouldn’t dream of imposing ourselves on someone without being sure that this was what they wanted. In the case of our neighbour, he is grateful for our visits and would like more. Other people, of course, might value their solitude. Horses for courses, as you say.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Osyth says:

    Thank you for linking my piece – it was indeed a rather poignant coincidence that we were both thinking of similar content at the same moment. When you told me about Monsieur F I experienced sadness but also some anger. This old fellow does not deserve to be left to fester away, he deserves to be included and he deserves that people go out of their way to give a little time and companionship. The old should not be left to decay towards their graves and have time sitting heavy in the last days, months, years of their lives. One day, if we are fortunate we will be old too. It should not be a sentence for the unfortunate who wish they had gone sooner. This is a lovely, touching and very sad post. I am simply glad that this gentleman has the two of you to visit him, at least and that you appreciate what he has to offer rather than feeling he should be written off as tiresome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and you got there first! It is strange, though, that we were thinking of the same thing in the same week. Monsieur F’s problem is that he is now physically frail, although certainly not bedridden. I also think he feels that if he goes out he somehow betrays his late wife’s memory. People can be a little renfermé around here, without actually meaning to be unfriendly. I think it simply doesn’t occur to them to go and visit him. He does perk up a lot during our visits and always thanks us profusely for coming, which makes us even more guilty that we don’t go in more often!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Osyth says:

        I’m sure no-one means anything unkind. One shouldn’t judge, of course and particularly when one is dealing with a very different culture. Certainly, in Marcolès we have noted that a friend who was widowed in July is not really being visited and I am certain it is not out of unkindness but rather a sense that if people need something they will ask. And that is a village which I laud for being so helpful! Laissez-faire is much the mindset and perhaps that is what this is. But I am glad you are willing to go from time to time, he clearly enjoys it. And I don’t think there was any imitation of me, rather a well thought out and touching post in its own right .

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        As you say, the culture is different and we probably shouldn’t judge from our British standpoint. The French sometimes see showing an interest as interfering and they are very afraid of being seen as de trop. Even after 20 years there are things I find it hard to fathom about this country!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The isolation and loneliness happens even in lively villages – I see it with a neighbour a few doors away. Her children do not live locally, and whilst she does have an aide menagere, she’s been isolating herself to a large extent, not going out any more, even to sit on the bench across from her house. This is someone who used to be full of life but in the past 18 months it’s almost as though she’s given up, and is just waiting for her time to come…

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I think part of the problem is that elderly people sometimes write themselves off, like Monsieur F and your neighbour. Whether this is a result of the isolation or if it’s exacerbated by isolation is hard to say. Our neighbour almost never goes out, but he is quite frail. It must be hard to derive such little pleasure from life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s very sad to see when people write themselves off. And unfortunately, the feeling of loneliness cannot be relived by visits – even if someone stopped by every day. That’s what I see from our neighbour, and it was the same for my grandmother when she was widowed. She was still very active, belonged to a hiking club and had a relatively busy social life, but still complained of loneliness…

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        If you live on your own, it must be impossible not to feel lonely, I would imagine. I think, though, that it can become a downward spiral if people give up, as your neighbour seems to have done.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. MELewis says:

    Retirement homes are miserable places, and I’m sure your neighbour is happier in his own home despite the loneliness. One thing that France has going for it is the system of ‘aides ménagères’ which enables many elderly and infirm people to stay in their own homes. As for the lack of neighbourly visits, this is too bad but in my experience quite typical of France. People really do live ‘chacun chez soi’ and far too much is expected of family who are often far both in distance and emotionally. I would say Monsieur F is lucky to have you as neighbours!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I should hate to end up in a retirement home. It’s better to be left to one’s own devices in one’s own home. I’m sure Monsieur F is enabled to stay chez lui because of the aides ménagères (although he says that some are better than others!) and because of his family being close by. We see chacun chez soi and chacun pour soi all too often around here. We don’t visit Monsieur F as often as we should.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A beautiful piece, Vanessa, thank you. Is loneliness inevitable, do you think, as contemporaries pass on and there is no one left to share the old memories and experiences. Our village Christmas meal for the over 70s gives us a chance to catch up on older villagers and those who don’t accept the invitation are visited by a councillor and given a panier garni. A lovely idea but what about the rest of the year? La France profonde is a wonderful place but physical isolation is a problem as the population ages. Maybe we younger inhabitants need to find some means of setting up a meaningful neighborhood watch for our lonelier elderly folk.

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      I suppose Christmas is the worst time of year if you are on your own. But, as you say, what about the rest of the year? It must be hard to see your contemporaries pass on and to be left behind. One lady we knew got to 96 and nearly all her friends had already died. The aide ménagère system works well as far as we can see, but Monsieur F said the other day that not everyone has the same temperament – a diplomatic way of saying that some of the people are more congenial than others. Most villages do have clubs des ainés, but of course it requires some effort to actually go to the activities and outings they lay on. If you are infirm, it’s beyond your reach. So your idea is an excellent one.

      Like

  6. Elise Detterbeck says:

    I have so enjoyed all of your posts, Vanessa. This one today, especially, hit home. My husband and I (Americans who spend 3 glorious months in a small house near Nimes each summer) live next door to & across the street from 2 couples who are experiencing exactly what you describe here. Their children do come every so often, but between times, both couples are very very lonely. I visit them a few times over the summer, & see exactly the same things you wrote about when I see & talk with them, & we share fruit from each others’ trees. It is very sad, & makes me reflect on my parents as they were going through the same thing. They were lucky that they had the means to pay for good health care & a very comfortable senior living center so they could live among old friends.
    I am impressed with the care available to elderly people via the French government networks, as well as delivery systems for bread & other products. As Americans, who never had any sort of government insurance system before Mr. Obama, we have watched the mean spirited degrading of our health care & services since our new “leader” took over a year ago. We applaud the social network systems set up in France to help the elderly age in place as long as they can.

    Thank you for your informative & often touching posts.

    And by the way, when speaking, we all use “Vous”, not “tu”. (That was a great blog as well!)
    Elise Detterbeck

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you for your kind words about my posts, Elise. I’m sure your neighbours are very grateful for your visits and no doubt look forward to your sojourns in France. The systems for allowing elderly people to stay in their homes do seem to operate quite well in France – at least as far as we can see.

      Like

  7. We chat to our old neighbours; whether they have family keeping an eye either not they seem to appreciate it!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A very sensitive and lovely post 🙂 Makes me wonder how I’ll get along here, when and if I make those old bones!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I must admit the same thought crosses my mind the older I get. As long as I can read and write, that will partially alleviate the trials of getting older.

      Like

  9. I loved reading this post, as it affirms our love of chatting to locals and generally talking about the small things in life or I should say things that give a bigger insight into a small community and it’s people than any travel brochure or website!

    Liked by 1 person

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