As I write this, my 74 year old mother is sitting downstairs having a cup of tea. There’s something quite comforting knowing that your mother is in your home; it’s a safe, warm blanket kind of feeling, like the one I had as a child whenever she stroked my back or held my hair from my face when I was sick. It’s not one I have that often, as she lives on the other side of the Atlantic in my Canadian homeland.
My mother is a beautiful woman. Anyone who meets her tells me this. She’s petite, relatively smooth skinned and stylish, her white hair giving her an air of sophistication. Looking at her, one would assume that she’s aged very well, certainly better than many of her contemporaries, whose waists have thickened and ankles have swelled from a more sedentary, sitting down and slowing down kind of life.
But her beauty belies her poor state of physical and mental health and I can’t help thinking that my mother is becoming a shadow of her former spirited self. This is a woman who, in high school, was a track and basketball star. She regales us of stories of her 100m sprint wins and her 3-point shooting. Some of my best memories of my time with my mother are on holidays, exploring the old cities of Quebec and New Orleans and hiking together through the Scottish Highlands.
Now, slipped discs and subsequent back surgery mean she struggles with simple housework, let alone any exercise. Walking even a mile is something she can’t do without pain. But sitting for long periods of time is also uncomfortable, so often she takes herself to bed at 8pm, not to sleep, as that has never come easy to my mother, but to rest. Long days are spent staring out the window or reading romantic novels or watching telly. She admits to me she’s bored, especially at home in winter, when the cold, wind and snow deter her from venturing outside for days on end.
It’s not the physical deterioration that worries me though. It’s the mental deterioration that comes from inactivity and as a side effect of the myriad of pills she takes for her pain. She’s become forgetful, often repeating the same stories day after day, or even on the same day, and things I’ve taught her one day – like how to turn on the shower or open her email – don’t get applied the next day and, so, we teach her again.
She, herself, was concerned about Alzheimer’s but assures me tests have been negative. But, for me, there’s little reassurance about my mother’s declining mental health. It’s heart breaking. It’s the warm, safety blanket slowly unravelling, leaving me exposed to unfamiliar, unwelcome, cold air that cuts sharply into my chest when I breathe it in.
I realise ageing is inevitable and we’ll all experience it differently. But, seeing my mother age has taught me something important. The key to it is to treat it as something you do not as something that happens to you. Keeping myself physically and mentally active, travelling, meeting new people and learning new skills are vital. And cycling… well, cycling is the ideal ageing antidote, helping maintain muscle and keeping our immune systems strong.
Right now, though, I’ll enjoy my mother’s company. We’ll drink tea and eat scones and reminisce. We’ll feel safe and warm and time will stand still temporarily.