The Old Man and the Pea


I was supposed to be doing my art treat with artist, Claire Jackson, this week but I’ve had to postpone it. Hopefully this delay won’t be for more than a few weeks as it’s something I’m keen to do. But the reason for the change is that life has intervened in an unexpected way and suddenly I have new responsibilities to navigate. An elderly gentleman named Frank has come to live with me.

There is plenty of disagreement about the age at which someone becomes old and even more so about when they become elderly. In order to be eligible to be treated by a geriatrician you need to be at least 65. But whether someone is ‘elderly’ or not is largely dependent on whether they have health problems. However, in the case of my new housemate, Frank, there is no room for doubt. He is 95 and that is pretty old. When he was born in 1920 only half of male babies could expect to live beyond the age of 64.

Frank grew up in Walsall in the Midlands but in 1948 he emigrated to South Africa with his wife, and together they raised their family there. Eventually he was widowed and for the past few years he’s been living in a care home in Johannesburg. Although he didn’t complain, it was clear that he would love to end his days in England so that is why he has come to live in my house. And he’s not just any old 95-year old gentleman. He is soon to become my father-in-law.

Macular degeneration has rendered him almost blind and he has significant hearing loss. However, his memory is good and he is witty and wry. Inevitably there have been adjustments for all of us involved. We have to do things more slowly and our diaries are padded with medical appointments. Finding things to entertain him is a challenge as he can’t see a television and he hasn’t expressed much interest in music or the radio. But I’m determined that he’s not going to go the way of my old boyfriend’s granny who was nearly blind and lived in a care home. Every day she would sit knitting dishcloths. As soon as she’d finished one, the staff would unravel it and they’d return the wool so she could start all over again.

granny knitting

People are quick to mention the hard work involved in caring for older people and that is undeniable but they rarely mention the positive aspects. A friend who is in a similar situation said that whilst it curtails spontaneous trips for him and his wife, there is an enormous pleasure in seeing his mother-in-law enjoy good food, laugh at jokes, read poetry, and watch the garden. And most of all to know that she feels loved and safe. We are very lucky that Frank is polite, funny and appreciative. He gets frustrated with his limitations and given all he has to contend with he has every right to be grumpy. But he’s rarely that. He’s a gentleman.


© Tomasz Sienick 2005

As a child I was fascinated by Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Princess and the Pea. A young woman turns up at a castle and begs a bed for the night. She claims to be a princess but her hostess is unsure whether to believe her. So she puts a hard pea on the base of the bed with twenty mattresses and twenty eiderdowns on top. The guest climbs to the top of her unusual bedding arrangement and in the morning complains that the bed was lumpy. This is all the proof that is needed that she is a true princess. Now, is there an equivalent test for a true gentleman, I ask myself?

I think I found the answer to this a few weeks ago when my partner and I took Frank out for lunch in a cafe. It’s a popular place so I was pleased to find a table just inside with three empty seats. Perfect. We got Frank settled and ordered our drinks. But as we were ordering the food we realised that it was cold by the window. So we asked the waitress if we could move to another table. She gathered up our cutlery and drinks and we all trooped off with Frank holding onto his walking stick and my arm. We settled down again. My food arrived and it looked delicious. A roasted butternut, pumpkin seed and feta salad.

butternut squash salad

But as we sat there waiting for the rest of the food we gradually became aware of a terrible stench. It drifted across and whereas most awful smells pass, this one didn’t. It was musty and grew increasingly difficult to ignore. Four rather trendy young men were sitting laughing a couple of tables away. They may all have been cheerful but one of them had clearly not aired his clothes. So, we asked the waitress to find us another table, making the excuse that the background noise was a bit loud for Frank. We trooped off to uncharted regions whilst the waitress followed with our drinks, cutlery and food. We settled down again, and all enjoyed our meal. But the respite was short. When we were waiting for our coffee, my partner shouted “I don’t believe it” and darted off to the one corner of the café that we hadn’t yet explored. After a couple of minutes I was curious so I took his coffee over to him, complete with nice little whirly shortbread biscuit on the side. I found him chatting animatedly with an old university friend that he hadn’t seen for forty years. “Come and join us” he said, “and bring Dad”. We shuffled over.

Later when I apologised to Frank for the lunch in which he had sat at four different tables he said graciously that he “hadn’t noticed”. I decided there and then that like the princess and the pea, this is the equivalent test for a true gentleman.