Culture » January 24, 2013
Eighty at Last
On Amour and pitying the elderly.
Amour reminds us that old age and its particular sufferings are part of human life
I am trying to understand why I wasn’t moved to tears by Michael Haneke’s beautifully made French-language film, Amour, which, besides being an Oscar nominee for best picture, has been praised to the skies for its “unflinching” and realistic portrayal of death and dying and dementia. Rightly so. From its beginning, when the police break into an elegant Paris apartment and discover the rotting corpse of a woman, to [SPOILER ALERT] the end, when a handsome old man suffocates his beloved wife with a pillow, I watched, mesmerised but unmoved, the slow, relentless deterioration of the woman and the increasingly frustrated efforts of the husband to cope with the situation. In concentrating on what this particular couple—refined, anal, chilly—do when they experience these things, the film does not set out to make them lovable, and they are neither ridiculed nor pitied.
When my book about being old, Crazy Age, was published, I was not quite 78, a bit of an upstart in the old-age stakes. Now that I am, at last, 80, and have today walked my mile and swum my 20 lengths, I feel readier to speak for my generation and to admit to recognising a good deal of what goes on in Amour. I think often about death and about dying (particularly as I walk and swim), and when I forget words and names I worry that I’m losing my mind and my memory. Most of all, I dread becoming dependant on anyone else, and I sometimes hurt the feelings of those who would like to help me. Many of my friends are old, too. Some of them have lost children as well as partners, and several of them are losing physical and mental power and contemplating, as a result, frightening changes in their lives: helpers, wheelchairs, stairlifts, giving up their homes. I go to funerals and memorial services, and am apt to feel relief that at least I won’t have to organise or attend my own.
Hospital nurses and carers in the U.K. are being taken to task at the moment for their lack of “compassion,” particularly for their old patients, whom they are constantly adjured to treat with “dignity.” “Compassion” and “dignity” have become problem words for some of us. Everyone who is cared for in a hospital or a residential home should—it goes without saying—be treated with kindness and respect. This is as true for babies and teenagers as it is for the old. But no one should be asked to feel grand emotions they don’t feel and probably can’t feel, and no one should be expected to transform their patients’ lives; though they should, of course, be asked to behave well.
Amour reminds us that old age and its particular sufferings are part of human life. Most of us will experience them, if in different degrees, and if we’re to be sorry for anyone, perhaps it should be for those who don’t make it into old age and would have liked to. The film makes these sufferings interesting and understandable, but it doesn’t pity this couple and it doesn’t try to make us pity them.
Nor does it pretend to confer on either of them the dignity that they both know they are in grave danger of losing. I’m not sure you can confer dignity on people, though you can be sensitive to their wish to avoid or disguise the worst indignities of weakness and age.
When my mother was dying, it upset her when doctors and nurses thought only of her recalcitrant body and ignored the long life she’d lived as a hard-working painter. She winced at the endearments and the soft-pedaling, longing to be known and treated as the strong, creative person she’d always been. I have several friends who campaign for the right to choose when they die and also to die at home. When, in Amour, the husband smothers his wife, the scene is not unwatchable, but it is ugly. We see her body twitching, struggling under the blankets. She may have a vestigial wish to stay alive. That is what the old want those younger than themselves to understand: that a desire for life can accompany suffering and defeat, and that what the old want and feel is no simpler than it is for younger people.
Pity and ridicule may be our fault. Too many of us lie about our age, mimic the young, go to absurd lengths to avoid seeming old. Such efforts are all too likely to make the young feel sorry for us or even find us absurd: the very outcomes we least desire.
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Jane Miller first worked in publishing, then as an English teacher and finally at the London University Institute of Education. She retired as Professor Emeritus in 1998.