Rebranding old age: The Finials

Old age needs a public relations specialist. It’s time to rebrand, to market this part of life as just that — a natural phase– to be celebrated rather than feared,  as a time of privilege rather than something  to endure, a time worthy of respect, and even honor.

That is coming, because the baby boomers are on their way, in waves.   And,  just as many of them have gone through their adult life accompanied by trainers, life coaches,  self-help books and therapists, they are approaching old age with a coterie of academic and professional specialists with programs to offset every part the aging process. Let us hope they come up with a new name.  The generation before mine told us in no uncertain terms what society could do with “the golden years”.  I find “senior” as precious as “junior”, and don’t want to be either.  Perhaps we will be known as the finials.

In the meantime, my generation is already here and we would like a little respect please. We lived through an amazing century and our accomplishments in those years, from creating an airplane to fly through the clouds to storing all our information in the cloud, are the foundation of the future. We have been though wars, the depression, the sexual and the technological revolutions: We have experience and wisdom to share.

Who are we? We’re you, with the added on value of more birthdays. Like you, we are not a monolithic group. There is no unilateral “We” in old age. We are the medically frail and the strong; the curious and the bored; the strivers and the contented ones.  Some of us are on scooters, walkers or in wheelchairs; others are tap-dancing and stretching on yoga mats. One in  three of us over the age of 80 is in a stage of dementia. One of the other two is caring for that one.

Many of us are “downsizing”, choosing assisted living,  moving in with our children.  Depending on the ability to function independently, some will go to a nursing home.  Too  many are homeless, lost to society and too often, abandoned by it.

We are as individual now, as we were in our younger days. The bullies are still bullies, the rude are still rude, the bossy are still bossy, the caregivers are still giving.   Only, in some cases, more so.  Some want to live beyond a hundred, others are content to accept whatever fate offers, opting for no more tests or intrusive procedures. We are not curiosities, specimens to be designated as “cute” or “amazing”, because we can walk, talk, dance, think, fall in love, have sex.  We are in our old age, not our infancy.

Each oI us will decide when we are willing to embrace the label “old”.  Something will trigger that — a loss, health, weariness.  For me, it was the number, 85, with the sharp realization that time is now truly finite.  If there are things I want to do, say, write, amends to make, I had better get on with it.

I see this last stage of my life  as the true coming of age.  Forget the bar and bat- mitvahs, sweet sixteen, the years of getting the vote, the right to buy alcohol, being eligible for military service or any of the landmark birthdays.  This — old age — is maturity.  It is a marriage of aches and pains, loss  and heartaches with  possibilities, a true sense of the meaning of time, and, perhaps above all, an  understanding of who we truly are, beyond the many labels we have worn throughout our lives.

Who are we?  Cherish us, for we are you, in a not so far off future.

Joan Sutton Straus’ book, The Alzheimer’s Diary, one woman’s experience from caregiver to widow, is available at your favorite on-line book store.  All profits from the sale of the book go to The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.

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Social isolation and loneliness in seniors

A special note to my Canadian readers.  Steve Paikin who is one of the best journalists working today, hosts the TVO program The Agenda.  Tomorrow night, Tuesday, April 3, at 8 and 11, the program will tackle what can be done to prevent social isolation and loneliness in seniors.  As this is a topic that interests me, I will be tuned in and if you are approaching the last third or your life, or worrying about your parents, I suggest that you do too.  Some think we are in an epidemic of loneliness.  In the UK, the government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness.  How much government can or should do, will be part of The Agenda tomorrow night.

Old Age: The Myths

A few months ago,  I turned  85. That makes me an old lady.

Hearing that, there are those who will question my calling myself a lady.  Almost all will rush to contradict me, to tell me that I am not old.  So adamant will the latter be, one might think I was confessing to a terrible disease.

To their assurances that I am not old, I can only respond, “Nonsense, if I am not old at 85, when will I be?”

I relish admitting my age because I do not think that the word ‘old’ is a pejorative.  I have earned the years and except for the blight of those anguished  times when a child struggled with terrible disease, there are none I would give up.  Yes, old age has its baggage — but so did youth and middle age.  The downsides of aging are well-known, everyone recognizes them.  But along with the aches and pains, financial worries and loneliness that may come with age, there also comes a very special kind of freedom.

So, before you send the bromides, all designed to deny the reality of old age,  let’s deal with them.

Some will tell me that I am only as old as I feel.  True, but that was true also at sixteen when, with a little Kleenex in my bra, I could convince myself that I looked 18.  At forty,  I had days when, depending on what I had imbibed the night before,  I felt like Methuselah, others when I was as frisky as a teenager. The difference is that the day an 85-year-old feels as frisky as a teenager is the day he or she will fall and break a hip. At 85, one approaches friskiness with caution.

Get young friends, some say, as if that is an inoculation against aging. . Think about how silly that is.  At 85, what choice is there?  I am almost always the oldest person in the room.  My young friends are invaluable when I have computer or iPhone problems, and they do keep me in touch with their world.,  The latter, however, is a mixed  blessing – their world can send me into despair: For them, and for what I believe they are missing.

They cannot. however, replace the old friends, the ones who knew us long ago, who observed our development, witnessed the events that shaped us.  Losing them is one of the most difficult parts of aging.  With each death, we lose a part of ourselves. Old friends are the link between us and both our personal history and the history of the world we knew. They remember the depression, World War 2, the fifties and the tumultuous decades that followed.  They remember when there was no television, when families bought ice from a truck, when telegrams were delivered to the door. The young have little interest in anything that happened before the internet, and if it isn’t on Google, it doesn’t exist.  I recently told a forty-year old that a building looked as though it had come through the blitz – he had no idea what the blitz was.  Without our peers,  we are unmoored, disconnected from our own reality. .

Others will insist that 85 is the new 75. To which I say, “Nonsense.  I have been 75, and 85 is very different, if not physically, psychologically.”

Which brings me to the other bromide, that 85 is just a number.  Yes, but what a number!  This one comes with flashing lights, pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. At 85, one cannot escape the realization that there is  more life behind you than there is  in front of you. That perhaps is what Philip Roth meant we he referred to 85 as “dark old age”.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the old have a monopoly on death.  We all know young people who have left this earth far too early.  But the young go to bed  believing in their immortality.  The aged tend to go to sleep each night wondering “Will this will be the night, will they wake up the next morning?”  At 85, one lives with the quiet acceptance of the inevitability of death.

We would all like to go easily, in full stride, painlessly.  But there is no menu, we do not choose.  Keeping ourselves healthy and strong makes us feel good but, in the end, we have no control over the way we die.The toned and fit may go before the indolent and slothful   Death keeps its own counsel. It creeps us slowly, or lashes out suddenly, It  arrives in a cloud of morphine, or as sedately as Shakespearean sleep, it announces itself through disease; it mocks our years at the gym. It gives us time to prepare, or it leaves our families with mountains of mess to sort. So, prepare.

I am from a generation whose mothers told us to wear clean underwear because we might be in an accident.  At 85, I  hesitate to leave dishes in the sink before I leave the house. What would my children think if they found my nest a mess?

Above all, in Philip Roth’s dark old age, you find yourself living life both forward and backward, examining self, pondering how to make the remaining days meaningful.  The author, Ward Just, might well have been thinking of this old lady when he wrote these words in his book, A Dangerous Friend:

“It is always necessary to look forward and backward at the same time.  Only in that way can we preserve our identities and live truthfully.  You know the end of things  as well as I do. We cannot pretend not to know them or deny that they exist.When we relate events from the past we know the results and must acknowledge them, whether or not they bring us understanding, or consultation, or shame.:

In th next blog: Rebranding Old Age. 

Joan Sutton Straus’ book, The Alzheimer’s Diary, from Caregiver to Widow, is available at your favorite on-line bookstore.

 

Foolish Old Age

Source: Foolish Old Age

Foolish Old Age

We read in the newspaper about the death of an old man or woman and the lawsuit that follows when the family members discover that their inheritance has been spent on. or left to a newly found companion. The almost universal opinion will be that the old person has been foolish, taken in by false affection.

Let me tell you. We are entitled to be foolish.

I am in my 85th year, and that, however some might want to avoid the term, is definitely old age. An age when you contemplate how many years are left to you, what you want to do with them, an age when your natural desires might seem to others to be foolish. Foolish because so many still believe that with age we should lose the longing to be touched, to give and get affection, to share intimacy with someone when the crowd has gone home.

And so, we are vulnerable, vulnerable to people who pay attention to us, who really listen to us, who recognize that there is still a needy human being within the aged body. It is not about sex, although that can still be part of it – let me shock you — even at the most advanced age!  It is more, much more, about a longing for intimacy, the shared joke, the post dinner critique, the hand held in a movie theater, and above all, the chance to once again, experience desiring and being desired.

Families should not underestimate the temptation. I’ve been there. After my husband’s death I met a man who proceeded to court me. He was sophisticated, cultured, well-travelled, good-looking, my age, and we had met in the synagogue – what could go wrong? After a few weeks, over dinner, he asked me for $100,000 to invest in a wheat futures scheme. I said no, and never heard from him again

Fortunately, I am not that vulnerable. But I did admit to myself that if I had billions, if I could have afforded to lose that money, I might have said yes, just to have someone like that in my life. The experience threw me. Not because I lost him as a companion, but because of how I suddenly saw myself. Did I look that needy? That vulnerable? Did I look like prey?

I did indeed feel foolish for thinking that a man so attractive, who could easily have the company of younger women,  would court a woman his own age for any reason other than advantage. But then, he was Hungarian and, as politically incorrect as that stereotype may be, it unleashed my sense of humor as I recalled the Hungarian in My Fair Lady, and I laughed, at him, and even better, at myself.

Because my husband was eighteen years older than I, I have lived my old age twice – first his, and now my own. Living through his, I witnessed any number of older men and women whose lives grew narrower through the combination of widowhood, isolation and age. Some were called foolish.

One bought the friendship of a younger woman who kept her alive by letting her live a vicarious life. She came and told the older woman all the details of her intimate life – it was a living soap opera. The young woman profited from it – expensive jewelry, real estate, access to a credit card, cash. Those of us who watched were horrified. But who can put a value on what this young woman gave to our friend? To interfere would have been to leave a vacuum we could not fill.

Another has a wardrobe that calls to her. Recently, I took her out to dinner to a perfectly ordinary local bistro. As she is very unsteady on her feet her caregiver brought her to meet me there.  She arrived wearing a full length mink coat, an evening gown, long white gloves, and a-glitter with jewelry. Every eye was on her. Was it inappropriate to the occasion and the place? Yes, of course. But who can blame her for perhaps, just once more, wanting to be the woman she once always was, for recreating for a brief evening, the world of glamor she had lived. Read more…

The Walls We Build

On the eve of the inauguration of a President who wants to build walls, some thoughts.
History is replete with the walls that man has made.
There are both physical and symbolic walls, designed to keep some people in and others out, to define territory, to intimidate, to impress, to retain power.
And then, there are the other walls.
The wall of ignorance which can be the most enclosing of all walls, for only someone with tremendous imagination and faith can recognize that there is anything beyond, and only someone with formidable will can find the courage to fight his or her way over it.
There is the wall of intolerance, which is ignorance by choice. Those who choose to live behind this wall will never comprehend the true meaning of life. There are no new ideas to stretch the brain, no new discoveries to stimulate the taste, no variety to add dimension to the circle of friends. Behind this wall, we grow rigid and as gray as the wall itself.
There are the prickly heights of the wall of pride, which stands in the way of connection. This is a defensive wall, designed to keep those who would know us or help us. or pity us, apart.
There is the wall of vanity which demands that time stand still. Behind this wall, we live without grace,so determined to refuse the reality of aging, we become caricatures of ourselves.
There are many walls built from fear, each one different and yet all the same. Fear of failure, which keeps us from trying.
Fear of being hurt, which keeps us from loving.
Fear of being obligated, which makes it impossible to trust.
Fear of criticism, a barrier to achievement.
Fear of offending, which makes us hypocrites.
There is the wall of loneliness, a wall we build ourselves, when we wait for someone else to make the first move, to speak the first word. Behind this wall, we cannot make new friends or mend old quarrels.
The bleakest wall of all is constructed of bitterness for it warps the soul. Every time we dwell on the past and blame others for our failures and disappointments we add another brick.
There is the wall of unhappiness which grows thick and forbidding when we let unhappiness become a habit, when we refuse to recognize that we are responsible for the quality of our own lives.
There is the wall of ingratitude. Wiithin this territory we do not recognize contentment, love, or friendship, for we are always seeking more.
There is the wall of vengeance which is an invitation to disaster, for which of us is pure enough to judge, is close enough to God to usurp his role?
And then, there is the one wall that matters, the wall we build to protect our vulnerability to shut out the cynics and the pessimists and the destroyers. Behind this wall, we can live a loving, peaceful, happy and fulfilling live.
That wall, no President can build for us.

What I Love

A former Sun reader asked me if I could find a column – I think this is the one the reader wanted.

 

I love

The pink  of the dawn

The birds’ morning song

The scent of drew on the grass

Freshly ground coffee

The touch of your skin

And you

In the morning.

I love

The amber light that filters

Though a blind darkened room

The hum of traffic far below

The distinctive smell of city heat

Your hand at the back of my neck

And you

In the afternoon.

I love

The sound of a big band

Hips moving

Bodies in rhythm

Perfume

The taste of white wine

And you

In the evening.

I love

The words of a poem

Spoken aloud

The warmth of a bed

The refuge of sleep

And you

In the night.