Column | Earthly life is finite, a point, not a comma

‘Old and New’ I have always found a beautiful expression. It is the simultaneity of past and future, closing and beginning, looking back and looking ahead. I’m not sure if this name also occurs in countries other than the Netherlands; what the last day of the year is called varies quite a bit. What is called “New Year’s Eve” in one country (Noche Vieja), becomes New Year’s Eve elsewhere (Nytarsaften), but in Dutch they also come together.

To complete the year ritual, I treated myself to ABBA Voyage, the digital concert of the famous Swedish foursome in London. The souvenir shop was full of retro stuff, the performance was given by the younger versions of the ABBA members, three-dimensional digital projections. That was impressive, really. To increase the live concert feeling, a cover band stood next to the stage. I didn’t need that, they were very non-ABBA and it accentuated the absence of the ‘real’ ABBA. The most surreal was the audience, cheering loudly for virtual projections (me too) and then the final spectacle was yet to come. After the young digital projections waved goodbye, the ABBA members emerged as their current seventy-year-old selves to wave to the audience. That was touching, because it made you reflect on the passing of time.

The strange thing was that these were also projections, of course. Old seemed ‘real’, but that too was an illusion. The effect was that of the typical mild ABBA melancholy: a life of regrets, choices, winners and losers. They can live on forever in their digital projections, because even after the death of the ABBA members, we can now go to an ABBA concert thanks to technology. But earthly life is finite, a period, not a comma.

There is a wonderful definition of our slow mortality in a story by Alice Munro: Aging is the decline of possible turns in your life. You can add to that: really old is when others start to determine which turn you have to take against will and thanks. Anyone who takes their parent to a nursing home, as I had to do last year, knows: this was the last exit. What I find creepy is how that exit in the hands of this Dutch government crumbles into an undesirable scenario. This is what Minister Conny Helder (Long-term Care and Sport, VVD) said about the nursing home in an interview with this newspaper: “You may wonder whether you want to deliver your parents there. We prefer to keep people independent for so long that they can continue to live at home and do not need that care.”

“You may wonder if you want to deliver your parents there.” What would she mean by that? Is the nursing home a bad place for your parents? Did you fail as a child if you “deliver” your parent there? We prefer to keep people so independent for so long that they can continue to live at home and do not need that care. Who is ‘we’? The Dutch state? What does she mean by ‘keep independent’? You go to a nursing home because you can no longer take care of yourself independently. Helder describes going to a nursing home as “the old-fashioned way, because continuing to build nursing homes is no longer tenable due to the staff shortage.” The solution? “Elderly people can live together in almshouses or with students nearby.”

Clear’s starting point is therefore not: what is good for the elderly, and what do you as a society need for this – more staff and how are we going to guarantee this – but a financial view in which a ‘lack of autonomy’ or ‘dependence’ are difficult, a culpable situation. The winner takes it all. She paints a bizarre picture as a solution: demented, incontinent elderly people together in fictitious courtyards (which do not exist) or between the students in houses (which do not exist).

In the new year I want to go back to the old, I want older than old-fashioned: away with that cold liberal view of the old man as a burden, old people’s homes back! I want the Netherlands to become a country where you want to grow old again. I don’t need Conny Helder for a feeling of guilt, a little ABBA fan knows his classics. Of the time slipping through your fingers they sang (Slipping through my fingers): „Sometimes I wish that I could freeze the picture/And save it from the funny tricks of time/Barely awake, I let precious time go by/Then when she’s gone, there’s that odd melancholy feeling/And a sense of guilt I can’ t denny.”

Steve Jensen is a philosopher and writer. She writes a column here every other week.

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