“So, that’s life”: A reflection on old age, hospice care and end of life

Take a look in the mirror and what do you see; how has your face changed, what stories lie behind the wrinkles and scars? These are the questions Cathy FitzGerald poses as she speaks with people from all walks of life in her BBC radio programme Mirrored, which holds up a mirror to the ageing process.

In a recent episode, Cathy shares a warm and poignant interview with John Gilbert ‘Gil’ Garbett, a travelling salesman from Margate who was supported by Pilgrims to stay independent through an incurable illness.

Read Cathy’s interview with Gil below; you can also listen to the full programme here.

Gil: I’m 86, 87 next month. I’ve sold ice cream, I’ve sold tea, I’ve sold bread, cakes… there’s not much I haven’t sold, actually.

Cathy: If I can just get you to face the mirror… describe yourself for me.

Gil: Somebody getting old. I find myself fighting away from looking in the mirror because I’m not well, and I’m beginning to accept that. Margate is the hospice I proudly attend. Coming here breaks my week up and I look forward to coming, because of the friendliness and the social side of meeting other people in the same boat.

Margate is the hospice I proudly attend. I look forward to coming, because of the friendliness and the social side of meeting other people in the same boat.

Cathy: Do you take a pride in your appearance still? Does it matter to you to be well turned out?

Gil: Yeah. If I go anywhere special I’ll put a suit on – and if it’s somewhere really special, a tuxedo. In the bungalow, then no; I put a pair of old jodhpurs on and a scruffy old pullover, but I shower every day and I do all my own washing. I do all my own cooking, I do most of the cleaning; I have a cleaning lady come once a week for a couple of hours. Somebody said, “Why don’t you move and buy a flat?” But I can’t bring myself to do it because my wife’s there, and I don’t want to lose that by moving away.

Cathy: You still feel she’s there?

Gil: Yes, she’s there. She’s there, and she always speaks to me.

Cathy: What does she say to you?

Gil: That she still loves me, and I still love her, and it won’t be long before we’re together (because we’ve got a plot together). That keeps me happy when there’s nobody around, when there’s nobody else there in the bungalow.

Cathy: What was her name?

Gil: Patricia. We were married for 25 years.

Cathy: A long time.

Gil: Yeah. Not long enough; not long enough.

Cathy: What did you look like when you met her?

Gil: I must have looked handsome otherwise maybe she wouldn’t have fancied me. I had brown eyes, she said I used to fascinate her. I sit here and look in the mirror and think, “Who’s that horrible old man?” Then I laugh about it, and this is what I told myself when I started getting lonely in the bungalow: What’s to moan about? I’ve got everything I want, I’ve got no financial worries. I’ve got a lovely bungalow, I keep it reasonable, I’ve got good neighbours and I’ve got some lovely daughters. What more could I ask for? Nothing. So, that’s life.”

Our Wellbeing and Social Programme is free for patients who are in the later stages of a life limiting illness, and their families. It aims to enhance their wellbeing in mind and body.

The first step is to talk to your GP or healthcare professional. They can advise whether the programme is right for you. More information is available here.

Our thanks go to Gil’s family for allowing us to share this interview in his memory.