Source: Foolish Old Age
Living, loving, learning, caregiving
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…
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.
A former Sun reader asked me if I could find a column – I think this is the one the reader wanted.
The pink of the dawn
The birds’ morning song
The scent of drew on the grass
Freshly ground coffee
The touch of your skin
In the morning.
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
In the afternoon.
The sound of a big band
Bodies in rhythm
The taste of white wine
In the evening.
The words of a poem
The warmth of a bed
The refuge of sleep
In the night.
I don’t have any desire to be young again. Like most older people, I think the world I experienced was the best one. I have no desire to twitter and tweet, have a phone hanging, like an umbilical cord from my ear or walk around town wearing a close copy of long underwear.
But I do envy one aspect of being young: It is the only time in your life when you are confident that you know everything.
And I remember when I was young, when I knew everything.
Way back then, when I saw an old couple in a restaurant, sitting throughout a meal without apparently offering a word to each other, I used to think, “How awful”, and I would vow to myself that I would never be a partner in a marriage like that, two people with nothing to say to each other. How terrible.
How little I knew.
Now, many of those who knew about my husband’s Alzheimer’s (AD) ask me, “Did you have any conversation at all with him?” Well, that depends on how you define conversation.
Not like the ones we used to have which began at breakfast with the arrival of three newspapers and started with a discussion of Washington, Ottawa, New York and Toronto politics. My husband set an intellectual pace, with his knowledge of politics and economics and the breakfast talk would be one in which I was challenged to think and re-think. Then, typically we would part ways and not see each other again until late in the day when we would tell each other about our day, discuss what we had heard, learned, touch on family and finances, and if we were going out to dinner, where and with whom and — if I had initiated the guest list — why! and, if we were staying home, what we were going to eat. The latter could take quite a long time. And so it would go, from breakfast until the lights went out and the last words would be, “Good night, I love you.”
I miss all that, beyond mere words. And I have found that words are just that: mere.
Days would go by when my husband did not say a word, let alone comment on the world outside our doors. But that did not mean that we didn’t communicate. We did. There is a kind of silent communication that is as powerful as any that depends on speech. He could tell me with his eyes that he appreciated what I did for him. He could tell me with a smile that he was pleased to be with me. Without a word, he let me know that he was not happy that I was going out, leaving him behind.
When it was a really good day, if I asked him if he loved me, he would reply “Yes”, and when I ask why, he might answer, as he used to do, “Damned if I know”. And, sometimes, if I was very lucky, if I told him, ” I love you”, he would say, ” I love you too”.
Does anyone really need any more than that?
i have learned to look at that old couple in the restaurant and see them in a very different way. Perhaps they don’t have anything to say to each other anymore. When you have lived a long time, the world around you does tend to repeat itself. Everything that could be said has been said. More than once. There truly isn’t very much new under the sun. So, the general had an affair. Remember, so did Ike! Or so it was said.
But it is also very possible that they have moved beyond words. That what pulses between them is so strong, so deeply rooted, so much a matter of fact, that it just is.
That when you look at them, you might indeed be seeing what it looks like to be an old married couple. And realize that is not something to pity but a state perhaps to even envy, later, when, with age, you find that you don’t know much,let alone everything.
This essay is an excerpt from The Alzheimer’s Diary, one woman’s journey from caregiver to widow – available at your favorite online bookstore. All proceeds front he sale of this book benefit Alzheimer’s drug research.
In a few days I will mark the third anniversary of my husband’s death, three years in which I have walked hand in hand with a very personal grief.
The mourning began long before that day – ten years ago now – when Alzheimer’s began to steal aspects of my husband’s essential self.
First I said goodbye to the man who had always managed our finances: The Princeton economics major and former bank director could no longer balance our checkbook
Then it was adieu to the husband who was a chef: The man who took pride in his soufflés could no longer follow a recipe.
The elegant man became one who could not button a shirt or put on his clothes in the correct order.
Somewhere along the way, real conversation between us died and the faces that had a place on the periphery of his life began to disappear from his memory bank. He could fake it, smile, seem to be interested but there was no real awareness. The eyes were often blank.
And then Alzheimer’s claimed his dignity. The dynamic adventurous intelligent husband I married was an infantilized but beautiful shell.
I began then to pray for death.
So why then, when it came did I grieve? Not for him: to him death came as a friend.
No. I grieved for myself.
What did I learn about grief during the past three years? That no matter how many medical professionals try to put it into stages, compartmentalize it, grief is an intensely personal emotion.
When one becomes a widow or a widower, one discovers a whole world of widowdom. You become aware in a new way of others who have shared this path and look to them for a way through. But no one else can really help you because their way will not be your way.
I have seem some who looked untouched: they appeared to be able to pick up their lives and keep moving as though nothing had happened. But then, I was not with them at four o’clock in the morning. Perhaps that was where, in the privacy of their own soul, they experienced their grief. Or perhaps, by the time death came, their marriage was empty of emotion. With death, they found freedom.
Many, especially the widows,become part of a group, seeking whatever solace can be found in numbers. They travel together, go to the theater together, become a subset of society, not one, but many.
Some opt for constant movement, dashing here and there, off to this place or that place, hoping, perhaps, to stay one step ahead of the reality of their lives. It is as if they believe that if they move fast enough, grief will not catch up to them. It will. And the longer one puts off walking into the center of that pain, the more painful it will be.
My own path for the past three years has taught me that grief is never static, it does not stay the same from day to day. I have moved back and forth through numbness; exhaustion; an inability to breathe; sharp, acute, very real heartache; rootlessness; lack of purpose, and the emptiness that is true loneliness.
And I have discovered the true meaning of the word loss. Loss. We substitute that word for more brutal word, death. People say how sorry they are that I lost my husband.
But I lost more than him when he died: I lost a vast part of myself. That understanding of what loss truly is has been reinforced over the past year when three of my dearest friends died. With each of them another part of my past, part of my self, has disappeared. Who will be left to testify to whom, what, I was? I am losing anchors to my past. That is loss, and it is forever.
And so, I believe, is grief. The nature of it changes. Some days it is distant murmur in the cacophony of life. But it is there, and comes at you, unexpectedly, triggered by who knows what. It is the price of loving. And that is a price I am willing to pay. For I loved, and I was loved.
The man died three years ago but the love remains.
The Alzheimer’s Diary, One Woman’s Experience from Caregiver to Widow is available at your favorite bookstore. All profits from the sale of the book support Alzheimer’s research.