Readers: tell us a story

By Leslie Campbell, February 2012

Tapping into the wisdom of the elders, with your help.

As I’ve written in my editorials from time to time, I have three elders with whom I am intimately connected: my mom, and husband/publisher David’s parents. They range in age from 83 to 88, and all live here in Victoria.

Their journey through their 80s has been bumpy, to say the least: widowhood and two broken hips, plus uterine cancer for my mom Jade (and breast cancer in her late 70s); lymphoma and vascular dementia for my mother-in-law Pat—which has meant her husband Bob Broadland has become a full-time caregiver at age 88. It’s been, he admits, “a steep learning curve,” not the least of which was accepting he needed a little help. To any question whose answer depends on the vagaries of the future, he sagely admits the futility of prediction and answers, “Time Will Tell” (yes, the caps are purposeful).

As a result of the various challenges, our visits with our elders are too often taken up with mundane day-to-day tasks, organizing appointments, or just talking about the latest misadventures. Does mom have enough food in? Are her hearing aids in need of adjustment or just new batteries? What’s going wrong and what needs to be done?

Every once in awhile, however, I remember to just be with them, to hear stories of their past, to ask them about their views on life, and at least with Bob, to have a good talk about politics. He’s got a lot of history to draw on, and his memory is better than mine!

I love hearing what it was like when they were kids, how their folks immigrated to Canada—my side from Scotland, and David’s from Russia. How their families managed during the depression and wars. How the sense of entitlement to material well-being was so modest compared to ours now.

Bob recalls clearly his early years in Vancouver and Campbell River. His father worked as a cook in logging camps, though his real love was beekeeping. (Fireweed honey is the best, according to Bob’s experienced tastebuds.) Bob has had a life-long love of his own—with Strathcona Park, a place he recalls first visiting when he was 15, and later spending the first night of his honeymoon “a stone’s throw from Upper Campbell Lake.” 

After being a wireless operator in the RCAF (where he met Pat), Bob graduated in 1949 with a degree in Forest Engineering from UBC. He subsequently started working for the then-brand-new Provincial Parks Branch. He has many interesting tales from those days—and opinions formed as a result of them. He is still writing letters in defence of Strathcona Park to what he sees as a diminished Parks Branch (despite the vastly increased numbers of staff). In 2006, he was given a Distinguished Service Award by the BC Museums Association for “many years of dedicated effort far and beyond the call of duty, and his steadfast devotion to the preservation of the heritage of the province of British Columbia.” 

This new year, I resolved to record more of his and my mom’s stories, something I wish I’d done with my father and grandparents when they were still alive, and with Pat before her dementia closed that window to her past. I’ve started, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover.

It also seems like a good time for Focus to do its bit and include more of the stories of Victoria’s elders. By documenting these, we are paying tribute to important community members, and also learning valuable—and fascinating—history and perspective.

In Greater Victoria, 6.4 percent of the population is more than 80 years of age—the highest proportion for any of Canada’s metropolitan areas (the national average is 3.7 percent)—so this city is indeed rich in elder wisdom. 

I’ve started a list that includes well-known Victorians, like former mayor and mega-yacht-marina-opponent Peter Pollen; and Connie Isherwood, a practising lawyer at age 90. And former city councillor Helen Hughes. But there are so many others—like my mom’s 93-year-old friend Ed, who was a fighter pilot in the war and ran a favourite local restaurant. And Phyllis, the 97-year-old with whom my mother shared a hospital room, and whose memories, wit and good humour kept us impressed and entertained.

To ensure a wide variety of senior stories, we’d like readers’ help. Please send us a paragraph or two introducing us to someone you know who has a good story or two to tell, and who can give us young ones some clues to happy elderhood and to what makes life meaningful in general. Our subjects must live in the Victoria area and be over 80. Other than that, we’ll consider all suggestions.

Leslie Campbell thinks listening to an elder is a good antidote to our culture’s obsession with both youth and speed. Please send your elder stories to focusedit@shaw.ca.