Every baby booming writer seems to want to write about his/her parents’ aging and/or death. It’s normal, I suppose, to confront ones own mortality while immersed in unfinished family business.
By training I’m a geriatric social worker with much post grad experience, training and work. I can’t work with older people now; it’s too painful. Our parents are the first generation to outlive their body parts, and we all pray that it will be different for us. Though without stem cell research and without massive infusions of resources in learning how to live a long enough successfully, without the “general public” learning how to distinguish conditions that can make an old person seem useless and feel it even more we’re back in the sandbox no further along then we were ten years ago.
Except that now every body’s an expert on aging because they saw something on Oprah or read something somewhere that will change their parent’s life. Or they still lump older people into the “aren’t they cute,” category. In most people’s hearts, aging is something that happens to somebody else, and vital resources should be spent on children who are the future, or whatever condition the person suffers from. I live for the day that “national I’m going bald month and need a cure,” is established. After all it’s quality of life not quantity that makes a life, isn’t it?
Aging is a complex, insidious, series of events that begin at conception, and end at death. But as we can’t decide when a fetus is viable, we no longer know when certain people die. Is it when machines keep a person alive? Is it when the feeding tube is finally taken out after all five kids fight for a year?
Personally I would rather be dead than be a shell of whom I was. It’s my personality and brain that make me unique not my body. Though I dread anything happening and not being able to walk. That would take away all hope and dreams as I live to walk. It makes me feel whole, vital, refreshed and able to deal with the myriad of problems that life consists of.
Would I want to die if my brain’s still functioning but my legs aren’t? Honestly I should hope not, but I don’t know. My father always wanted to die before he became “old and decrepit,” and at 77 he accomplished this goal. My mom–well she lived several years as a member of the frail elderly and hated every second of it.
After her funeral people told us how happy she had been. My sister and I said in tandem, “she was?” My mom didn’t believe in airing dirty laundry or expressing problems in any way to anybody but my sister and I. It made her last years very difficult for us.
It wasn’t so much her physical needs that wore me down. She wasn’t dependent in the traditional sense. To keep her mind active she tried memorizing everything, learning new things, and not having an aide. Since she couldn’t see and refused to eat every meal in her coop’s restaurant meals did present a problem. So did everything else.
My sister paid her bills, but my mother wouldn’t put her money in a trust so that we wouldn’t have to pay estate taxes. Though we had more control over her money than we would have had with a living trust–we could have robbed her blind, she felt more secure knowing that everything was in her name. My sister and I would never rob her of this dignity.
She had been robbed of so many dignities. My cute little mother didn’t want to travel, come into the city, eat in restaurants or do any of the things that she had done effortlessly for so many years.
My mom had been president of a small chain of junior clothing. She was on the board of many women’s groups, and was a doer not a sitter like me. We did share a love of reading, of progressive (the dreaded word “liberal”) causes, of conversation, of snide remarks about certain people, and much else. It’s a cliche but my mother was my best friend.
I’m sorry that both of my parents didn’t live to see their lifestyles vindicated. They were parents who both took an active role in their children’s lives. I hated it most of the time. They talked about our school papers as if they had done them; our colleges as if they had gone to them. I drew the line when I moved to an apartment in Manhattan and my dad talked about it as if he was going to move in.
My friends used to make fun of my parents roles in my life. Now they wish they had my parents to talk to as they take the credit for the good and the bad in their kid’s lives:
Big Luce, “But it was a good paper, we, I, uh, Little Luce wrote.”
God do I wish that my parents had been around to hear that one. They had known Big Luce since she had been Lucia, queen of the night, and adored her as do most people. Once I said to my mom, “Sometimes I can’t believe how incredible a mother Lucia turned out to be.” My mom laughed. “Neither can I.”
Baby boomers are supposed to have invented total on hands parenting but they didn’t. My parents did. Once when I was a teenager, I was visiting my on again off again boyfriend. His school had a peace rally and Dr. Spock was the main speaker. He asked my boyfriend and I if he could sit with us. I was overcome:
“My mom wore out two copies of Baby and Child Care before I was twelve. I wish I could tell her that I met you but I’m supposed to be in New York.” (My boyfriend’s school was in New England.) Dr. Spock laughed. He was used to that remark. More than anybody Dr. Spock was responsible for making baby boomers boomer’s. I wish that he had lived to see us in our 40’s and 50’s, all grown up and responsible. I read somewhere that baby boomers only did one thing right–raise our children well. If that’s not the most important thing, I don’t know what is. And I don’t even have kids.
I was nineteen the year that I met Dr. Spock. My mom was 54 and just beginning to hit her prime. I’m 54 now and take comfort in that. I also take much comfort in how just when my dad was going to retire he found new and bigger clients. He never retired and that’s what kept him young; that and planning the three major trips my parents went on each year, photographing them, and planning the next trips.
In his last two or three years he had fewer clients; most of his cousins and best friends had died, and my mother would literally graph out their weekends so that my dad would never have any down time as he would become depressed. I learned from my father’s example to really really like myself and enjoy my own company so that when nobodies around I can still have fun.
Though I have no idea what kinds of problems I will have when I become old, and I really try not to think about them. It’s not better quality assisted living facilities we need to concentrate on; it’s not “activities,” it’s not great housing. It is changing perceptions and expectations.
It’s a whole mess of intangibles that nobodies really concentrating on because nobody can think of all the variables, factor in ten years and an economy and a country that we don’t understand.
But what do I know? I ran from geriatrics because my mom was aging, I lived in a community where everybody seemed to have blue hair (and not the punk or goth type) or be blue-haired-ladies-in-training. Even the men. I felt like I worked in one nursing home and went home to another. It was very depressing.
When I came back to my roots (Manhattan) and was looking for a coop, one Realtor tried to guilt me into buying a gross apartment with dark wood panelled walls, a covered terrace, and a smell of old age, in an institutional painted pink (my favorite color) building where more than60% per cent of the people were over 65, and most of the rest were their unmarried adult children.
“Why you don’t like old people? They’re so cute.”
Big Luce was a girl contractor then. She came on coop looking excursions with me. She answered:
“She’s a geriatric social worker. She loves old people, but she’s
looking to live in a mixed age building.”
“But that’s so prejudiced,” said the Realtor who thought that calling me at eleven PM was proper. Guess she thought that calling at that hour would make me believe her when she told me that I had loved the apartment enough to sign a contract.
I woke up and told her that I couldn’t have expressed interest in the apartment because I would never buy an apartment that had dark brown wooden panelled walls because I would have to take them down and totally renovate the apartment, and just because I didn’t want to take on that responsibility or live in a building where all my neighbors seemed to have walkers or be in wheelchairs didn’t mean I was prejudiced.
I think that incident disturbed me so much because I was going through the worst years of my life and actually felt guilty that I wanted to live around people my age or younger. People thought that my parents were ten or so years younger than their age, and I like to think that though I was adopted I’ve inherited that characteristic.
When I first moved to the blued-haired-lady building I was doing my laundry one Sunday morning. Everybody else in the laundry room was dressed in what my sister and I call “bubbe dresses.” House dresses with big pockets that we would die before wearing as would my mom or any other friends. I was wearing a fitted tee-shirt, jeans and sandals. Frankly I thought that I was the only person in the room dressed to leave an apartment. My long hair was up and I had on lipstick because I always put on lipstick when I leave my apartment. I was 41, looked 30 and didn’t bother to dissuade most people of that notion.
The women looked at me with much suspicion. I smiled and said “hello.”
Nobody answered for awhile. Finally one woman said, ‘oh are you the new girl doing for Mrs. Rabinowitz?” I had no idea what she was talking about. Took awhile for me to realize that she thought I was a cleaning woman or an aide.
“No, I’m Pia S—just moved into 12E.”
“A young girl like you?”
“Do you own or rent?”
“How much do you pay a month?”
“Why did you move here?”
“Why don’t you have a studio in a basement somewhere in Manhattan?”
It was at that moment that I knew I had made a tragic mistake. Why I had moved to Riverdale, the Bronx was to be the biggest mystery of my life. Not really, Social Security had assigned me to an office there and I was sick of living in my huge Manhattan studio. At 41 I thought that I deserved a bedroom.
But rather than move to Park Slope or Brooklyn Heights where I would have been out of Manhattan but among people like me, I was living with these strange cliches who spent too much time talking about me. I was variously: out to steal a husband. (If I wanted one I could have had a much better one in Manhattan.) I was a lesbian who was having a wild affair with the pool manager. (I found that one funny, but the pool manager, a born-again didn’t.)
I was up to no good–that might have been true. I played music too loudly. I had a higher position in Social Security than the clerk position I said I had. (True, we were told to tell people that so they wouldn’t ask for favors.) Social Security hadn’t counted on the people in my building who feared no boundaries. Actually they didn’t know boundaries. Anything was fair game for them.
I called my mom one day to thank her for never letting us join a pool club. If the people on Long Island’s pool clubs were anything like the one in my building I would have spent my entire adolescence being convinced that people were talking about me even more than I already did.
There were some really nice intellectual people in my building who actually thought that I made a great neighbor. Few of them, but quality counts.
When I left Social Security to get a Masters in Social Work I decided to concentrate on clinical geriatrics because I wanted to understand the aging process. I agreed with Robert Butler that to understand the whole person you should start with the people who navigate old age successfully and learn the details of their life beginning with childhood. Like Eric Ericsson I thought that vital old age is something that can be achieved.
My parents were my role models. Then my mother became a member of the frail elderly, or “disabled,” as she would pithily say to me. “When they think that you’re disabled, they don’t give you a break.” I thought of my building and totally agreed.
I did find an almost perfect coop in a building where I neither feel too old nor too young. It’s heaven. And I don’t apologize for not wanting to live with old people before it’s my turn. My 40’s were devoted to aging; my 50’s are being devoted to living.