On Aging

The conversation around the lunch table at work had turned to a familiar topic.  "She's gotten really picky about food," Jill said.  "She used to eat anything, but lately she turns her nose up at everything."

"Try milkshakes and ice cream," Deb suggested.  "And what's the name of that place where you ordered diapers and they delivered them so cheaply?"

"Oh, Sav-Mor Drugs," Jill answered.  "You can get wipes there too."

The same conversation occurred tonight at choir rehearsal.  "I don't know what I'm going to do with him," Sandy said. "I found out quite by accident that he had taken the car again without telling us.  I guess we'll have to take the keys away."

Seems like every time I sit down with a group of women friends these days, we fall into the same conversation.  I recall similar conversations about 25 years ago, long discussions about feeding habits, and the best places to buy supplies, conversations which over the years turned to diatribes about unruly teenagers.

But though the topics are similar, the subject of these discussions have changed.

It's no longer our children we're talking about, it's our aging parents.

In the past decade or so, I've shepherded both my in-laws, as well as my aunt and uncle,  through the last stages of their lives.  And while the caregiving is remarkably similar to that required by infants and children, the emotional  reality is much different.  Because the roles are reversed, because the child becomes the authority figure, the one making the hard decisions that the parent often rails against.  And because the outcome of this scenario is not a child who grows up to embark on a successful independent life, but a loved one  reaching the end of one.

There are so, so many elderly people in this country right now, requiring various levels of care, and those numbers are only going to grow as my own generation ages and lives longer and longer.  I could start counting off all of them I know personally, and name a dozen within 10 seconds.   Most of them are floundering in one way or another.  They try to remain in their homes too long without the help they need, either because they're too proud to ask for it or to poor to pay for it.  Or they're institutionalized  among other people in similar or worse physical and mental condition, and they deteriorate for lack of stimulation and the loss of their assimilation in  mainstream society.  They lose the ability to be useful in society, because we compartmentalize them and ignore the many gifts they still have to offer.   They lose their independence because there are so few alternatives to transportation or safe independent living. 

I read an essay the other day written by Gerda Learner, a historian, author, and teacher, who specialized in women's studies.  In her most recent book, this 90-year old educator and thinker, has some profound thoughts on aging.  In 20th century society, she writes, "there is no model for aging well that is appropriate to the new reality."   She talks about the inevitable losses that come with growing older, but she also points out that aging is a natural process, and one from which we should not shy away.   "Aging is a process of purging , of purification," she writes, in which "one makes peace with one's life and one's way of living; and one learns to treasure the gift of each day." 

My mother, who is 83 years old, still lives in her three bedroom home on 1/2 acre of land in the suburbs of Detroit.  She shops, cooks hearty meals for herself (and for me, and often for her neighbors, most of whom are in various stages of infirmity).  She has lost virtually all the family and friends of her generation.  Yet she perseveres each day, gets up every morning despite arthritis that stiffens her joints in the cold Michigan winters. "I have to keep going," she says.  "I can't just give up, can I?"

Although she's doing pretty well today, I know that could all change in a heartbeat.  How one fall could spell the end of her independence, one missed dosage of blood pressure medication could ignite an explosion in her circulatory system, one trip up a flight of stairs with a load of laundry prove too much for her heart.   Sometimes that future rushes at me like a freight train, and I picture myself lying here tied to the tracks, helpless to stop it. 

"Because modern society excludes or marginalizes old people and avoids dealing with death," Learner concludes, "the healthy and living are full of fears and have no preparation for their own process of aging.  Old age is not a contagious disease. It is the ripening of the fruit, the preparation for the harshness of winter when the roots grow and strengthen, a time when leaf mold decays making a new seedbed for the growth of mushrooms.  It is the closing of the circle; the fulfillment of the contract between generations.  It needs to be treated with respect and honor."  ~from Reflections on Aging

Those of us caring for old people now should look long and hard at this reality and decide how we want it to change.  For aging happens to us all, and in the blink of an eye it will be our children gathered around those dinner tables talking about us.