One of the major demographic shifts we’ve seen in many countries (certainly not all!) in the last years is the ageing of our population. The ‘baby boom’ generation is now entering into late middle/early old age, and that means a great number of changes. Socially, economically, and in other ways, we’re needing to re-think the way we do things (you’re welcome, younger people…)
I thought about this recently as I was reading The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old. The author has chosen Hendrik Groen as a pen name, too. This isn’t, admittedly, a crime novel. Rather, it’s a novel written in the form of a journal that the titular character keeps for a year. In that journal, Groen records what life is like in an Amsterdam elder care facility. It’s an unusual book with both wit and some darkness, too. And it highlights some of the issues that society faces as its population ages.
Crime fiction also highlights these issues, too, and it’s interesting to see how the genre treats them as time goes on. One thread through Groen’s story is the question of independence. Some elderly crime-fictional characters can do quite a lot (or even everything) for themselves. They may need occasional help here and there, but they’re certainly not invalids. I’m thinking, for instance, of Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s Emily Micaleff. She’s the former mayor of the small town of Port Dundas, Ontario. Her daughter, Hazel (who’s facing retirement herself) is a police inspector, and the main protagonist of this series. Emily’s health isn’t always good, and she doesn’t have the stamina of a younger person. But she’s quite independent, and wants to do things for herself, in her way. Balancing the realities of her age and health against the very normal and healthy desire to be independent isn’t easy.
It’s not easy for Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover, either. She’s a retired English teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. On the one hand, she uses a cane, and she’s not as strong as she once was (she’s in her eighties). She tires more easily than younger people do, and she does have occasional health problems. But she likes her independence, and she’s not at all ready to be ‘put out to pasture.’ It’s a difficult balance, and it’s a thread that runs through that series.
One of the points that Groen makes is that many elderly people do cherish their independence. They want to go to museums, concerts, good restaurants, and the like. In fact, a group of the fictional Groen’s friends form what they call the Old But Not Dead club. Each month, one of the members picks an activity for the group to engage in. They go golfing, to museums, out to dinner, and more. As they do, we see the challenge that society faces in making these activities available to elderly people who may need assistance, extra time, easy access to different places, and so on.
It’s not just independence, though. There’s also the issue of health. As the population ages, more people face health issues that weren’t as widespread (or at least, as well-understood) as they are now. And society will need to find a way to address those problems. One of them, for instance, is dementia in its many forms. Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, for instance features Dr. Jennifer White, who’s been diagnosed with dementia. She’s had to retire because of her illness, and now lives with a caregiver. When the woman next door is murdered, White becomes a suspect. The problem for the police, though, is that it’s difficult to find out the truth from her, because of her advancing illness. Among other things, this novel sheds a light on some of the challenges we face in treating dementia, and working with people who have it.
On the one hand (and Groen addresses this, too), dementia often progresses slowly, so that those diagnosed with it still may have quite a long period of a relatively normal life (whatever that even means). They may need some assistance, or to find a way to remind themselves of things. But they can still live full lives. We see this in Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Jacobson has developed short-term memory loss, so he uses a notebook to keep track of everything he does. Then, the next day, he can go back to those notes to remind himself of what happened the day before. On the other hand, we haven’t found a cure for dementia. So, patients and their families face the challenge of how to give the person with dementia as much dignity and independence as possible, but also prepare for what is still inevitable.
Perhaps the most important point that Groen makes in the novel (at least to me; your mileage, as they say, may differ) is that elderly people are simply that – people. They want to be treated with dignity and respect, just as anyone else does. They have their own likes, dislikes, complexities, faults, and strengths. And crime fiction is, arguably, seeing that, too. There are plenty of elderly fictional sleuths, from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple to the present day. And as time goes on, authors are exploring ageing in more depth. And that, to me, is a good thing. As more and more of us face getting older – perhaps very much older – the more prepared we are for it, and the more prepared society is, the better.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Landslide.