I’ve just spent the past 5 weeks in Toronto with my parents. Every summer Loch and I come to Canada to cottage, camp and all things Canadian and Sean joins us when he can. It’s a lovely time. My parents live so far away that what would be horrifying to most grown children – weeks and weeks of condensed one on one time, living and functioning within your parent’s house, car and life – feels like a real treat to me. I love my parents but, almost more importantly, I truly like them. I really appreciate our time together. They are terrific hosts and incredibly gracious with their hospitality.
Lately though I’ve become aware that, despite their young looks and perky demeanors, the fact of the matter is they’re getting older and that thought concerns me. What does our future look like? What’s my plan? What’s their plan? How much time do we really have left together? I understand getting older is a normal and unavoidable fact of life but it also – drastically or gradually – changes how we live and that’s something we’ll have to plan. At this point both my parents (and my in-laws for that matter) are still sharp and enthusiastic but I can’t pretend this stage of life is infinite. I have to consider a strategy to best prepare for their later years and remind myself to truly enjoy the time we still have left together.
Our culture – unlike the Asian cultures who seem to be great with their elderly – doesn’t have a strong history of positively supporting our senior citizens. As I touched on in my last post, we are a culture of youth. We celebrate and chase it. We pay billions of dollars to look it. As a group we have a habit of putting away our old people, quietly moving them off to homes and hospitals so as to avoid firsthand interaction with the perceived ugliness of aging. My mom used to say, “As soon as I get old and senile ship me off. I don’t want to be a burden!” Her only stipulation was I not put her in the country. “Nothing to look at and nothing to do.” My mom has always requested a retirement home in the heart of the city so she can sit on a bench and watch the world go by. She wants to be able to take her little old self to restaurants and the theatre and not just be stuck in the green pastures of the country like some prize bull living out her days amongst the trees. My Grandmother was against homes altogether, she’d say, “Why would I want to live in a home? It’s full of old people.”
In my perfect future I don’t ship anyone off. I’m able to have my parents near me as they age and pay their bills and visit and care for them as much as I can. They have always taken care of me and I would very much like to return the favor. My mom is my dearest friend. I want to sit and talk with her until the end. The house of my dreams has a large guest house for my (or Sean’s) parents to visit any time but I’m also aware of my limitations. Realistically I’m not equipped to be anyone’s full time caregiver. I watched my mom spend a minimum of 4-5 days a week taking care of my Grandmother (as well as a Great Aunt) for at least 15 years before she died and I’m not sure I’m selfless enough to do the same. It’s a different world now. At the very least, I can’t imagine having that kind of time. Currently, we don’t even live in the same city. How do I work that out? It concerns me. At the end of the day I’m an only child who loves her parents and no matter how the cards shake out for us (provided I don’t go before them – which is another issue) their needs will fall to me alone and I can only hope I’m able to rise to the occasion. As it turns out best intentions do not pay private nursing bills.
The thing is, I love old people. I always have. When I was younger I used to give the “Cutie Pie Grandpa Award” to elderly men I thought were adorable. It wasn’t a real award. I would just say it out loud to my parents. There was an extended period of time when I considered creating top notch old folks homes. Buildings with style and elegance and amazing food. I’d run it like a cruise or a high end hotel. Numerous restaurants. 3 different seatings. Activities all day. A beautiful pool. I’d look to hire kind, well paid staff. Medical facilities would be on site. There would be exciting day trips and evening events with proper wheel chair accessible transportation. Do you know my wonderful 96 year old Great Aunt can’t go on any of her home’s outings because they only charter school buses? School buses! How does someone who uses a walker or a wheel chair get on a school bus?! It’s ridiculous. We’re often so thoughtless when it comes to old people. My residences would have beautiful lobbies, floor to ceiling windows in every room and would be situated in centers of busy, metropolitan cities. It would cost a fortune but would be something people could plan for like a big trip or a new house. Most assisted living is so depressing, I really thought we could do better. I wanted a place I’d be ok sending my parents or, more personally, a place I would be happy going myself.
Recently an art exhibit caught my attention on Facebook. Tom Hussey created a series of works of elderly people looking in a mirror and seeing a reflection of their younger selves. It was beautifully done. A powerful and noble way to remind us that the old people we so easily overlook were once young, viable individuals with their own power and worth. I’m sure when I look in mirror later in life I’ll think “Who’s that old lady?” My mom says she already does that. The thing is no matter how old we become or how much our bodies let us down, inside we are still that teenager, 20-something, young mother or strapping young man. Even Sean, who’s barely in his mid-30’s, recently said, “I feel weak. I used to be so much stronger than this.” It’s strange when things we’ve always taken for granted start to become an effort. My illness makes my limits similar to that of an older person as far as physicality, strength and exercise and I’ve become accustomed to it. I don’t like it but I’ve accepted it. A couple of weeks ago however I had to stop my Dad from doing something I knew he was no longer strong enough to accomplish without getting hurt and he was annoyed. I understood but I think it’s important to know our limitations and acknowledge that they will inevitably change. I’m of the opinion that choosing acceptance over embarrassment and frustration makes things infinitely less irritating and disappointing. Look, I was a competitive swimmer and lifeguard and nowadays I barely go in the water without a noodle or a life jacket. I used to teach people to swim and now I’m so weak I could easily drown. It’s a blow to the ego to be sure but I’d rather float around in the shallow end than lose my life to pride.
I loved Hussey’s photographs because they seemed to respect both versions of the person. Who we are and who we were being essentially the same. We may look different but that young person is still there if we want them to be. I think I also responded to the work because the pictures illustrate what I so often do in my head. Often when I see older people, particularly men, it’s a younger person I recognize. Intellectually I know the person is old, but for some reason, they don’t look old to me. It’s an unconscious thing. I’m not trying to be deep or understanding. It’s just what happens. What’s interesting to me is that it doesn’t always work. Sometimes I’m completely unable to see the young person and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because the young person no longer exists. It’s as if the individual has allowed their essence, their fire, to be snuffed out. In resigning themselves to being an “old person” that’s exactly what they’ve become. It reminds me of that quote: We don’t stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing. I feel as if you see that in action all the time.
Aging frightens me. I worry for myself but, because I’m sick and still in my 30’s, more realistically and immediately I worry for my parents. Nobody wants to be a burden. No one wants to lose their mind or forget who people are. We’d all like to be spared the indecencies and humiliation of needing help with our most basic human functions. I always said when I got really old I wanted to buy a house with my friends. A big, old mansion with lots of rooms. We’d hire a nurse and a chef. When someone’s children or grandchildren came to visit we would all be able to enjoy their company because everyone would be special to us. My friend’s children are part of my life. I’d be thrilled to see them just as my friends would be thrilled to see Loch. When someone eventually passed on we would have each other to lean on and help through the heartache and transition. I recognize I might not make it to a ripe old age, but if I did, I think being safely taken care of in a home of my choosing, surrounded by friends and family would be a lovely way to finish my golden years.
There’s a Bette Midler Song called “Hello in There” in which she laments the passing of time and the end of so many things we once deemed important. She speaks of the longing of the elderly not to be left alone or forgotten. She sings:
You know old trees just grow stronger.
And old rivers grow wilder every day.
But old people, they just grow lonesome.
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there. Hello.”
We all want to pretend we’ll be young forever but the truth is no matter how much we work out or how many vials of botox go in our faces, eventually age will catch up with us. I believe the key is to acknowledge the physical change while still holding on to our metaphysical essence, and to respect age while we’re young so we can respect ourselves when we’re old. I believe if we honor our elderly now we give others the tools and inspiration to honor us when the roles are reversed.
At least, that’s what I keep telling myself…