When my fiercely independent mum, at 86, had a fall and broke both her wrists, my sister and I took the chance to talk with her about how life might be for her as she got older. What sort of support would she want, did she want to find an easier place to live, how would she help us feel less anxious about her. None of her answers to these questions quite satisfied us and she clearly didn’t want to think about it and even less to involve us. I ‘find her ‘not wanting to be a bother’ trait the most infuriating, but perhaps it’s one she shares with many women of her generation, and maybe it’s something that our society imposes on the old.
But then my sister asked the smart question: what is the one thing you most want out of life, now and in the future?
‘To still be useful’, was the answer. ‘Even if that’s just sitting at the end of the phone listening to someone’s problem’.
Of course, that’s what we were wanting, as well. To be useful to her. Was she telling us to listen well to her needs and wishes? And is there, behind that plea, a silent story of fear that we were only caring from a sense of duty? Whatever the other, hidden stories, we can only stay present and continue to listen.
In our mum’s case, we saw that listening IS the most important way to help her as well as her way to continue making a contribution in the world. In the wider world, time to listen is a rare commodity – if doctors had more of that resource, maybe our health services would be less stretched. Listening well, beyond what people say, listening to the story their heart needs to tell, is the practice of a lifetime. Listening well, some say, is such a useful thing to learn that it could be the key to world peace.
For me, the future belongs to my children and beyond them, my grandchildren. Their complex lives are stretched to the limit by goals and targets, school selection and career prospects, obligations and expectations for themselves and from each other. As a granny, I’ve sometimes been pulled into that world as part of my wish to be useful. If I listen to what my children say, they need me to give my time to cover the cracks in their personal busyness. ‘Just collect the kids from school, make sure they do their homework and give them their tea,’ If I listen to my grandchildren, I think they want me to be around while they amuse themselves, ready to tell a story or rub a sore place. I only need to listen to their stories, learn and watch in awe as they grow into the people they will become.
Feeling useful is vital to my health and happiness – maybe even a vital thread in our collective wellbeing. Usefulness at my stage of life means listening well to myself, my friends and my family. That’s all.