Clifford Owler has spent the past eight months trying to overcome a life-threatening depression. At home in Cockle Bay, Auckland, the 87-year-old talks to Hannah Brown about the struggle to find meaning in very old age.
I was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1931, the second of three boys. We lived in a rental house. My father grew up in tenements and the local people didn’t think much of people who lived in tenements.
What was he like?
He was a caring man, but he wasn’t good socially. He was always changing jobs and we had to move 14 times, so my education was a mess. Every time I’d get a responsible teacher who said, “Hey son, we’ll sort you out because you’re a bit behind,” we’d move again. It was dreadful. I wanted to be academic but I had no show – I didn’t even know the basics.
Dad was a baker and he guided me into it, too. I wanted to love him, but it was very difficult because he couldn’t really associate with you. It was like he was parallel with you. He came closest when we had a shared interest in woodwork.
What was your mum like?
Mum was small and she had really nice, naturally wavy hair. She was pretty, but gutsy. And she eventually told Dad, “If you move again, you’re on your own.” But that was a long time afterwards.
Dad used to imply I was less intelligent than average, and less intelligent than my brother, but later in life he said I was a better baker than he had ever been. He’d never said anything like that before, or that I was in any way bright. It didn’t improve my ego at that stage; I felt sorry for him. I’m fairly confident he had an inferiority complex.
To make things worse for him, he was five foot eight [1.73m] and had a car accident that crushed his leg. He was reduced two inches to our size.
How did you meet your wife, Jeannette?
I came to New Zealand on my own and I was living in a boarding house in Newmarket [Auckland]. I saw Jeannette regularly at a dance, but I wasn’t wealthy and didn’t have much ambition or the nerve to have a girlfriend. But one day somebody else got interested in her and that woke me up. I thought, “I’m not having this,” and I asked her out. She was born with a hip problem that gave her a limp, and she came from a working-class family and didn’t have any great expectations of life, which was good.
Did you get the life together that you envisaged?
Yes. We bought a house that needed drains dug and things fixed. It had a big garden and it slowly turned me into a Kiwi. In 1964, we built this house and, along with Jeannette, it’s been the most stable part of my life.
You celebrated your 60th wedding anniversary recently.
Yes, we married 60 years ago in June. Quite a lot of our friends have died now, so we’ll celebrate with our family. In truth, it’s a little ridiculous to celebrate being this old.
What children did you have?
We adopted a little girl, Jillian, and had two more [of our own] after that, Kathryn and Lesley. We were a bit slow making babies. Jillian was a beautiful, beautiful baby and she made us into parents. In those days, you just visited an agency and it was jolly easy to get a baby.
You’ve been struggling with your health?
Yes, in the past year my mental health became life-threatening. Kathryn is an academic and she encouraged me to write and publish a book and have a big book launch, and after that I just went downhill. It was a totally new experience for me.
Jeannette says I seemed shattered at the launch. I certainly didn’t feel like myself. I’ve given speeches, I’ve debated, I don’t particularly want to impress – I just want to get my message across. But at the launch, I felt I couldn’t contribute adequately and that was strange for me.
Then I started to think that suicide would be a logical choice. I didn’t think my life was bad, but I thought a lot about the fact both my brothers are dead, all my family is dead; I’m 87, my ambition and enthusiasm had gone, and I had nothing to look forward to or contribute.
I didn’t want to do anything. I wasn’t excited by anything. I felt like a burden. People can tell you what depression is, but until you feel it…
Who helped you?
I’m not religious, but Kathryn is. She said, “Can I pray for you?” I said yes and it helped. And she, of course, is delighted with this. For me, it showed she cared. I didn’t have a lot of that in my young life, people caring.
What about professional help?
It was obvious I needed help and we all realised it. We’re lucky, I got a lovely nurse from Middlemore Hospital – a real character who is also called Jeanette – and a psychologist. I saw them a lot. I’m also walking half an hour every morning and I’m on medication that’s working.
How has it changed you?
I used to be quite prejudiced. I think back to a time years ago when a friend of mine went off his wife and picked himself a new girlfriend. I had no experience of this situation, and I was shocked and disgusted and prejudiced, and I’ve always remembered that reaction. In hindsight, he was a nice guy and there might have been good reasons.
What are your thoughts on assisted dying?
As a theory, yes, I do intellectually approve of it. But I don’t know if I would actually use it. Perhaps if I had a terminal illness.
What are your thoughts on mental health and the elderly? How do you find purpose and meaning when you’re old?
[Laughs] I’ve got to admit the medication helps. I wanted enthusiasm back, I wanted to want to win at petanque – and with the medication I do.
What do you think your dad might have said to you when you were suicidal?
I think he would have sympathised and said, “Go and get some help.”
What other big things have you been through?
In my 40s, I started a BA and it took me 18 years to complete it. I found it difficult because I’d had a paucity of learning in my life. But I did it and I passed. One of my favourite papers was Ancient English Literature in ancient English language – probably quite futile.
I graduated at the same ceremony where our daughter Kathryn got her MA in Sociology. It did make up for that feeling I’d carried that I was incapable.
Another big deal was returning to England and visiting my mother before she died. She had advanced Alzheimer’s. She was still lovely, her hair was nice, but I got a wooden feeling in my head when she didn’t recognise me.
Do you feel you have a long time left?
I’m working on that because if I was enthusiastic about it, I wouldn’t need the medicine. But I’m appreciative of what I’ve got: a stable and attractive house, photographs and pictures that I like on the walls, a nice family, four grandchildren, and Jeannette. But I’m the last surviving brother. You think, “My turn’s coming.”