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Posts tagged ‘aging’

The Opposite of Young

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.


I’d so much rather be this lady….

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.”

Than this one.

Than this one.

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.


Why couldn’t an old folks home look like this place on I believe that is a legitimate question.

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.

rl05Recently 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.

rl04I 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…

xo leigh



My birthday was last week and I did that thing that kids never understand. I couldn’t remember how old I was. I remember asking my mom her age once and she said, “I don’t know. 45 maybe?” I thought she was putting me on. Who doesn’t know how old they are?! As a kid we’re obsessed with age and our next birthday and what will happen when we’re double digits, or 16, 18 or 21. We imagine ourselves “in our 20’s” or what our life will be like at 30 and in most of those imaginings we’re attractive, hyper successful and totally pulled together. When you’re young even a half a year makes a big difference. Loch is four and a half this week and he’s totally different than he was six months ago, but as you truly get older, not only do you no longer count months you can hardly keep track of years.

So, when someone recently asked me how old I was turning I said, “37. No, 38. Wait, shoot…um…no, I’m not 37 now I don’t think. So, no. I’m 36. So, 37. Yeah, 37.” Honestly, it was a struggle for me to figure it out. I was one step away from doing the math from 1975 and that’s saying something as I’m a big avoider of math.

My 2nd Birthday. First real party.

It’s not that I’m one of those people who hates their birthday or wants to be perpetually 29. I don’t. I love my birthday. I always have. Maybe it’s the Leo in me, but I’ve always loved a day about me, a celebration of my life. I’ve always appreciated the successful completion of another year. Long before I got sick I was a fan of the birthday. I’ve always told people who were grumbling they wished it wasn’t happening or talking about “skipping it this year” that they should be happy. There are so many people who would love (or would have loved) to live another year. The time we get on this planet is so fleeting and being granted another whole year is something to be grateful for, and if you’re also someone who’s blessed enough to be around people you love who want to celebrate with you, you should eat that s*^# up with a spoon.

My 6th Birthday with my beloved granny, Mimi.

I realize the “appreciate your birthday” thing might come off a little preachy or high hatted, but it’s not meant to. Yes, I’m in a different position than I was 4 years ago as far as appreciating every year, but this is not a new sentiment for me. Birthdays are an opportunity to slow down for a day and take stock of where you are and where you’d like to be. A day to appreciate your health, your family, your friends, your life. Another year has passed. Are you happy? Could you do something different? Is there a dream you wish you were following? Can you make a goal for next year? Are you healthy? Can you find the gratitude in that? Are you sick? What can you do to help your body take care of itself or better use the time you have left? Look, it’s impossible to be grateful for your life every day. There’s just too much to think about, too many things going on, but on your birthday you get a moment to look around and acknowledge where you are and hopefully find something to be grateful for.

My 8th Birthday. I loved that suit so much!

I’m happy to age. I’ll be thrilled when I reach 40, ecstatic if I reach 50 and grateful beyond belief for every other year after that. Let me tell you, if I make it, I’ll be the happiest 80 year old you’ve ever seen. All that being said however, and no matter how pleased I am to get old, aging isn’t for the weak. Getting old is one thing. Looking and feeling old is totally another. I might be infinitely grateful for my life but I am not particularly pleased with my wrinkles, or spider veins, or sagging upper eye skin (what with that?!). I’m not excited to get a waddle and I like being able to see my jaw line. I seriously considered botox this year as a lifetime of talking with my face has built a grand canyon sized trough above my eyebrows that you could drive a truck through by the end of the day. I hate not being able to eat whatever I want without seeing it on my lower half the next day. I loathe the cracking of my knees and the fact that I groan every time I stand up. I watch my parents with their shortening memories and different physical ailments and I see (if I’m lucky) my future. Getting old is tough. The body you relied on, the mind you took for granted, the memory you had, like any other living thing starts to decay.

My 34th Birthday dinner with my Toronto girlfriends (and our respective spouses).

The question of whether you’d like your mind or your body to go first isn’t a tough one for me. If I could, I’d chose to have my body give out (not any time soon) before my mind. Watching people’s bodies hang on long after their mind has gone is heartbreaking for everyone. I can’t imagine not knowing who I was or recognizing my loved ones. I think it must be perpetually lonely when no one is able to connect with you, and so hard for the loved ones who can see you right in front of them but are unable to break through. I’d rather be alert and cognizant right up to the end. It’s like we should all pick up smoking and high sodium diets somewhere around 85 just to ensure our body doesn’t keep us around after our due date.

My 36th Birthday. Cake made by Sean & Loch. Wonderful day at the cottage!

Like I said, aging is tough. Tough on the ego. Tough on the wallet (saving is something I need to do more of as I age)  Tough on the body. It’s not easy or glamourous but, like most things, it’s dependent on your attitude as to how arduous it really is. A positive attitude, one of gratitude and wisdom, can make the unpleasant aspects seem so much less. I went to the movies the other day with a friend I’ve had since we were 10 and at the end of the credits we were the last people in the theatre. Leaving just before us however were five older ladies (say mid 70’s) all busy chatting it up. As they walked out we watched them buzzing about the movie, their plans for the next day, who was going to some event. They walked slowly and carefully but they still seemed spry and light and were clearly having fun. I turned to my friend and said, “You think that’s us in 40 years?” and she nodded. Staying engaged with the world, with your friends, with your life, is a key ingredient to finding the joy in aging. You don’t have to be sick to appreciate each year, you just have to be conscious. Know that it’s all a gift and we should take advantage of it while we still can.

Happy Birthday to you whenever it is. May the next year be your best yet!

xo leigh

My 37th Birthday. 4 of us went out on a Monday night for dinner and ended up seeing an amazing Mariachi band, getting up on stage and then skipping over to an awesome Korean karaoke bar and singing away into the night. Couldn’t have been better!