The Third Third

What if I were 80?

  Reporter Janice Turner, 40,  turned herself into a modern day crone to answer the question “What if I were 80?” But when she wrote about it in The Times of London this weekend, she didn’t have an answer, really (except that upon receipt of a photo of his wife radically aged by theater makeup, her husband asked her to please wash her face before he came home; and her two sons, at first not recognizing her at the door, screamed “Mom, you’re freaking us out!”). Clearly, it wasn’t pretty.   While she set out to confront how society treats the very old (gently, but often like children, and not generously), what she confronted more acutely was her grief as her 87 year-old father lay dying (“this living decomposition that presages death” she calls his state) and her fear that what had become of him might -- and probably will -- also become of her. Even though she and her mother are doing their best for him and even though she still believes in the gospel of healthy eating and exercise. I know what she’s saying.  So do my sisters.  And so do all the other men and women our age I regularly see visiting their very elderly parents in the assisted living facility where Dad is.  (Do I call it “home?”  He’d kill me.  Or growl, “This isn’t my goddam home!”  Do I say it’s where he lives?  “You call this living?” he’d shout.  So I write, as I did, that Caruth Haven is, simply, where he is.  He’d correct even that: “It’s where you put me.”)  It has been a difficult transition. And it shows in our faces, my sisters’ and mine and our peers’. (Talk about looking older!)  We wear an air of distraction, sometimes so much so that my father, who is intent on staying sharp and making sure his brain is working and that we know it is, catches me in a mental lapse of the sort he’s afraid to make.  It’s just that I’m thinking about. . . paying the charges over and above his monthly fees I have the business office send to me so that he doesn’t have a stroke about the costs; finding some Hallmark cards -- the only kind he likes --  for him to send to grandchildren for their birthdays; restocking his liquor cabinet; remembering to take his dry cleaning; what he might like for supper; and if I dare leave him to rejoin my husband in England, if any of us dare fully rejoin the lives we had before.  We are hyper-vigilant and anxious.  We suspect every phone call is another shoe dropping; we know every plan we make is tentative.  Tennis?  Lunch?  A full day’s work?  A weekend with the grandkids?  Well, yes, I’d really like to, but I just don’t know. . . .  We look drawn and grim, acknowledge each others’ burdens with wry smiles and knowing looks, recognizing the commonality I last remember sensing with other parents visiting their children at a college’s Parents’ Weekend.  But then we knew it was a transitory inconvenience -- the kids’ extended adolescence and the jacked up prices at restaurants and hotels catering to the crowds.  Now we ask ourselves: How long can this go on?   And then, horrified (That sounds absolutely terrible!) we amend the question:  We don’t really want it to end, do we?   Of course we don’t.  We already grieve his losses -- he can’t drive, doesn’t enjoy his food, is no longer strong enough to walk down the hall, much less go out at all, can’t see worth a damn -- we aren’t ready to grieve ours.  We know, Ms. Turner writes, “how much a person can lose and yet still be himself.”  That’s why I almost welcome Dad’s outbursts now (which under other circumstances I could rightfully call abusive); they say he’s still there, still fighting, not just for every breath, but for every moment, maybe even for enough time to reach the same 90 his sister did before succumbing. I like his spirit.  I love his spirit.  I will weep when it is gone; I weep now for what seems a very sad way for it to go -- sad, angry, afraid, and bit by excruciating bit. What then, to return to the reporter Janice Turner’s quest, can I do, can any of us do, to better prepare ourselves -- and yes, our families -- for that last inevitable decade of decline.  (Or year, or six months. It doesn’t matter.)  How can we mitigate the losses?  Or adjust more gracefully to them?  Can we hold depression at bay?  Can we find joy in the confines of our existence?  Will we have -- or make new -- friends? Is there a decent balance we might achieve between being a burden and being meaningfully involved in our children’s lives?   I don’t know.  And I wonder now:  Could I have learned nothing from caring for my dad these last 20 months?  Have I been operating under the influence of that great drug, Denial?  All I’ve come up with so far is this advice for myself when I’m in his shoes: Spend up.  Get all the help you need.  Luxuriate where you can -- with nice linens, thick, fluffy towels, scented soaps and lotions, soft blankets, cashmere wraps, clothing that makes you feel good when you look in the mirror.  Speak up.  Hold your doctors accountable. Ask them to make the case for any new medication and to check on how that drug might work with the others already in your system and whether or not any benefit outweighs deleterious side effects. And if you don’t like being called “Honey,” say so; you don’t need anyone else chipping away at your dignity and self-esteem.   Stay up-to-date and as aware as you possibly can -- of the news, of language and culture, of technology (if that’s even still the medium of exchange 20-25 years from now), of your children’s and grand-children’s lives. Give up to the Higher Power you believe in (if you do) those things over which you no longer have any control.  And don’t waste energy worrying about them anymore. There’s nothing there, unfortunately, about where or how I might live. (And I’m sorry, but living in a community of only old people is downright depressing.)  I haven’t penciled in a viable financial plan.  I have no idea what the state of health care will be, how affordable and accessible it will be for anyone, much less the old-old’s.  I have made no concessions to the fact that I am 60+; I still assume I can live the way I lived at 30 or 40 or 50 and built a house 10 years ago that has way too many stairs.  I’m so far behind in my goal of making every day meaningful at this age,  I haven’t given a thought to meaning in my 80’s.  And as for making the necessary adjustments, my whining about my foot, my back, my shoulders, hell, my turkey neck and my husband’s retirement, does not bode well should more serious limitations threaten the future I hope to inhabit. I tell myself (Of course!) that we’ll just get Dad through this stage of life (And Dying is, I believe, a Stage of Life) and then, I’ll get to work developing the resources (housing, a social network, meaningful relationships, ways to contribute to the community, quality medical care, a faith life) I am going to need -- we are going to need -- to make the most of the next 25-40 years (and I have read that a full 20 percent of us can expect to reach 100!) so that I can embrace a happier ending when the time comes.  As it inexorably will. Peace is ultimately the gift I’d like for my dad.  And yes, I’m projecting.  That’s what I want, too.  
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