by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 14, 2006
OLD AGE IS NOT FOR SISSIES
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Longevity is our culture's Holy Grail. We "fight" debilitating illnesses. We admire people who won't "go gently into that good night." We praise "survivors." We tsk-tsk when people die "too young." We laugh when we say, "Old age is difficult, but think of the alternative."
Life never promised us a rose garden, so there's always that deal with the devil: You get your life, but at some point you have to give it back.
We fear death because death is truly fearful, but I'm beginning to fear old age more.
Today, thanks to physical comfort, relative security, healthy living, medical advances and plain old tough-as-nails genetics, many Americans live longer. At a party recently, someone told me, "My grandmother didn't start to get old until she turned 100." Her grandmother is now 104.
My mother, who is currently writing, choreographing and directing a musical for her Florida condominium, is 89.
I often write about how much I admire her spirit and creativity, but also about how far away she is, and how helpless I, as a responsible daughter, feel about the distance between us.
Over the years, I have watched my mother lose a son, two husbands and three sets of friends. They die quickly of heart attacks, or they get so befuddled that they drive into canals and drown, or they watch their bodies eaten by strange diseases like sceleroderma, or they waste away from Parkinson's and cancer, or their minds go while their bodies live on.
It's difficult to be frail yourself and have the responsibility of caring for an ill spouse, especially when you don't have the money for full-time help, or when a nursing home would bankrupt you. Several unbearably sad murder-suicides have taken place in my mother's community for just those reasons. And each illness and death is suffered by the whole community, because they have lived among each other so long.
For example, my mother has never quite recovered from the loss of Hazel Schulman, her best friend, costume designer and dance captain, who died in bed of a heart attack while watching the World Trade Center collapse on television.
But the show must go on, and beautiful, blonde, vain and kind Selma Kramer became Mom's best friend and costume designer. Selma married again in July. Two weeks ago, however, she was diagnosed with cancer. It appears to be curable, but waiting for the diagnosis exposed deep fault lines of vulnerability in her and her friends.
While our elders struggle with loss, loneliness, ornery bodies and the death that is hurtling towards them like a midnight train, we, their children, are learning our own lessons.
The biggest lesson is that it will soon be happening to us.
We're learning humility in the face of the faltering body, how to cope with our parents' pain, and how to take responsibility - sometimes much too much responsibility.
The solution for old age? Many people like to bring up the old cartoon Eskimo cliché - put the oldster on an ice floe and let him sail away. The other night someone suggested, "A bottle of vodka, a bottle of Seconal and a cold night." It was a joke, but then again, it wasn't.
The late comedienne Martha Raye, who was a friend of my grandfather's, said that old age is not for sissies. But the weaker and more frail we get, the more abandoned and lonely we feel, the more the social safety net is cut away, the more our fixed incomes don't begin to cover our medical expenses, the more courage becomes a scarce commodity.
Because I write about these things, I have become a repository for other people's stories. For example, I'm not the only person living in southern Vermont who has a elderly parent in Florida, and I sometimes find myself trading stories in airport waiting lounges.
I write that my life would be easier if my mother would move closer to me, and a friend tells me that she managed to get her mother to move north, but she hated it and died six months later.
My friends and I compare eccentric elder behavior. Do people become more of their deepest selves when age strips away the socialization? Does self-pity magnify? Will a mother who was always manipulative become even more manipulative at 90? Will an angry father always remain angry? Or can a person's behavior change?
There are a lot of questions. How do you resolve your long-term struggles with your parents when they start to need your help? When does the child become the parent, anyway? And how do you get your parents to recognize your authority? How much responsibility is too much? How much care can you give when you are stretched thin yourself? How can you not lose your patience every now and then? No matter how much you do, how can you not feel guilty?
Another big one: how do you get your elderly parent to give you the car keys when you understand completely that it takes away their self-esteem and independence, but also that it's only a matter of time before they kill themselves or someone else?
There are a lot of questions to be asked and answered, and a lot of stories to be told.
Old age is not for sissies, and we need to talk.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.