Archive for March, 2011

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Aging

It’s funny how easy it is to go through life and barely take note of the fact that you are getting older.

And that you will one day be old.

Obviously, as a society, we are obsessed with aging. We are encouraged to fight the scourge of old age at literally any cost (despite the unattractiveness of what, alas, remains the only other option). We revel in stories of 94-year-old marathoners, we ingest the pills and slather on the creams that promise even brief sips at the fountain of youth, and we continually push back the timeline that once heralded Old Age’s onset (i.e. “60 is the new 50”).

Still, the aging process happens slowly, and even for someone like me who is unhealthily preoccupied with matters of mortality, imagining oneself as actually being old is an impossible task. I look in the mirror, and despite the thinning hairline, graying beard and emerging wrinkles, I just cannot see a version of myself which resembles the images I see when I think of my now-deceased grandparents.

But while I can’t picture an old-age me, I sure think about it a lot more now that I have a daughter.  Just calling myself a dad makes me feel about ten years older. I often daydream about what I’ll be like when my little baby girl has her bat mitzvah, or graduates college, or gets married – ‘events that may be closer than they appear in the mirror’. I put actual, scary numbers on the ages that correlate with the milestones (50, 60, and hopefully not much older than 80 in the above examples) and what was once an abstract and nebulous concept feels much more concrete.

And this gets me thinking about what kind of old person I want to be. I’ve obviously seen and dealt with all types of old people in my life. Hollywood may want to convince us otherwise, but look around, they’re everywhere. And frankly, a lot of them suck. Disrespectful, I know, but for a group of people who are supposed to have accumulated all this wisdom, so many of them seem mean, short-tempered, full of regret – canes in one hand and supremely bad attitudes in the other. (And by the way, I’m talking about the old people I see out and about on the street, not the ones who may be in hospitals or nursing homes with legitimate reasons to be so cranky.)

Maybe they’re upset because they no longer ever have a moment when they’re not in actual physical anguish or maybe it’s just they feel life has passed them by, that most of their friends have died and no one cares about them (except for the politicians who count on them as the one motivated bloc of voters who consistently make decisions at the ballot box based almost entirely on self-interest).

I know I shouldn’t judge given I haven’t walked a step in their orthopedic shoes, but whatever the reasons, being so bloody unlikeable seems a poor way to live life. True at any age, but especially so when a visit from the Grim Reaper is likely ‘nigh. To try and combat what may just be a natural inclination to turn nastier and less patient as the years go by, I have come up with a few rules that I hope to follow if and when I officially become an old man.

1) Move to a warmer place.

At one time not long ago, I scoffed at the tendency of old people to migrate en masse to someplace like Florida, believing it something akin to waving the white flag on life. Seasons needed to be experienced to be appreciated. How can you truly enjoy spring if your winter is nothing but a rainy, slightly less hot summer? Just as the inevitable harsh setbacks of life must be endured and overcome, so too, I reasoned, must the harsh winter.

But as I turn the page on one of the most miserable New York City winters ever, I am thinking such a migration may be in the best interests of all involved. Cold weather just sucks, and I’m sure it sucks worse when the blood flow weakens and the bones turn brittle. Kids should know seasons, but for the old, it’s just not necessary. Hell, even autumn, once my favorite season, now seems little more than a particularly apt metaphor for the death that is rapidly approaching.

Plus, being someplace warm and comfortable should make it easier to follow the rest of my rules.

2) Join a senior living center.

The time will likely come when you no longer can or want to handle the aggravations and responsibilities of maintaining your own house. And as long as you’re going to migrate someplace warm with the rest of your old fogey peers, you might as well join one of those senior living communities.

Don’t get me wrong, nursing homes are still atrocious, foul-smelling waiting rooms for the Other World that are to be avoided at all costs, but there’s plenty to appreciate about a well-maintained assisted senior living center. My dad’s mom lived and thrived for many years in one of those places when she was older.

I mean, what’s not to like? You get most of your needs taken care of, and even if you’re lucky enough to still have a living spouse or some other family members in the area, it’s nice to have folks you can count on for support or social activities. They’re like fancy dorm rooms for the aged, minus the rampant sex and drugs (though I understand the male-female ratios are pretty favorable at these places for the men who manage to make it that far).

3) Act young.

I’m not talking about being in denial about being old – that’s lame – but there’s no reason why you can’t do most of the same things you liked doing when you were younger. For me, that will mean doing stuff like playing video games, eating Lucky Charms and going to the batting cages.

Granted, you won’t have the same energy level, but there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy life to the fullest extent possible. For instance, take the simple evening stroll, a relaxing and healthy bit of exercise perfect for the older set. But why not spice it up a bit and put some pep in that step? Listen to some music and break out some random dance moves, pet passing dogs, high-five passing neighbors, take a ride on an unoccupied swing in a playground (as long as there aren’t any little girls around cuz that’s just creepy).

BTW, as a related aside, never, ever say ‘Goddamn kids these days”. Oh, you’ll think it often, I’m sure (I do even now), but try to refrain from expressing it (even if in jest). Instead, why not try and keep up with what the younger folks are doing, what technologies they’re using, what shows they’re watching, what music they’re listening to. You might not learn anything, you might not like what you see or hear, but then again, you just might. And either way, it probably won’t hurt you.

4) Take a class.

Pottery or poetry, I don’t care, but don’t stop learning. I probably will take a photography or screenwriting course. So many incredible things to learn in this world, and by the time you’re old, you’ll have forgotten much of the stuff you once knew anyway. You could take a class at an organization that caters to older folks but I’ve always thought it’d be fun to sit in on like a community college class, stimulated by all the young minds (and young bodies – oh yes, I will be a dirty old man).

5) Don’t complain, especially about your health.

This will be the toughest rule for me to follow as I love to complain, especially about my health. But really, no one wants to hear it. It’s depressing, and unless you’re very sick, not worth lingering on.

Even if you are in pain, focus instead on inquiring about others and appreciating the blessings you do have.

6) Vote (selflessly) or Die!

Unless we’re talking about choosing your senior living center’s board president, never make a decision at the ballot box based on self-interest. I’ve always found it ugly how politicians feel they must cater to the aging electorate (and its powerful AARP lobby) and believe it’s one of the main reasons why this country never seems to solve its pressing financial issues. Have faith that the younger generations will respect their elders and take care of you, but when it comes time to vote, just ask your child or grandchild who they’re voting for and do likewise.

7) Treasure your memories while you make new ones.

Alzheimer’s is perhaps the most evil of all diseases as before it kills, it takes away the things that make us who we are. So if you’re lucky enough to be old and have most of your memory intact, treasure it. Take a moment often to think about the past – pore over yearbooks or photo albums, watch some old videos, read long-packed cards and love letters. On lonely nights, really try to relive a pleasant memory you once had – the night of your prom, the birth of your first child, etc. – and embrace the pictures and voices that come flooding back to you.

Of course, don’t dwell on the past to the point where you forget that you are still living, that new memories can still be made, if not so much for you then for the ones who still love you and will remain after you’re gone.

8) Be grateful for help.

Older people are certainly deserving of respect and entitled to a fair amount of assistance, but they should never forget to be thankful for the extra help received from loved ones and/or strangers. Gratitude is probably something folks of all ages could use a bit more of, but I feel I’ve too often seen a stunning lack of manners and appreciation from older people, who should obviously know better.

9) Avoid hospitals at all costs.

I know I’ve already ripped on nursing homes, but hospitals aren’t much better. Obviously they serve a purpose and sometimes can’t be avoided, but I’ve heard and experienced so many stories of people going into a hospital for a simple or routine procedure and getting stuck in an never-ending string of unfortunate – and often unrelated – complications. Perhaps it’s just to be expected that sickness leads to more sickness, but certain things about hospitals trouble me greatly. They are overcrowded and understaffed, fertile environments for infections and bacteria, often limited by severe financial strain and an overworked, sometimes incompetent, usually arrogant team of medical professionals. If at all possible, stay away … unless you’re visiting a sick friend or having a new grandchild (and even then, leave quickly).

10) Know when to call it quits.

Granted, a lot of what I’ve written so far is more than a bit flippant. It’s easy to say I will move someplace warm, act young, be thankful, avoid hospitals, treasure my memories, etc. but the sad, hard truth of aging is that if you live long enough, you will likely lose control over much of what transpires in your life. Bad things will happen and a proper attitude will only go so far in making things bearable.

I remember my grandfather once watching one of his peers move around a shopping mall with a walker and swearing he would never use such an undignified contraption. A few years later, he had a massive stroke and never walked without assistance again. I was devastated when he had a difficult time remembering my name, but though it seemed a small, silly thing in comparison, I hoped at least that the stroke’s utter brutality had the decency to also take away his ability to remember his resistance to walkers.

Personally, I hope I will have enough control over my life that when the time comes when I can no longer recognize or appreciate the joy that life can bring those who are open to it, when pain or sadness overwhelms all that is good, that I will have the ability – and the courage – to call it quits (and also someone in my life who will love me enough to respect that wish and help me move on).

This may sound grim or even barbaric, but I think it is quite the opposite … To end one’s life with a small measure of dignity is in some ways the best we can hope for. I have written about this before, but I believe it is ludicrous the way our society views death and end-of-life issues.

Of course, right now the only states that acknowledge the right to die and let humans give each other the same amount of respect and dignity we give our pets are Oregon, Washington and Montana, not exactly warm-weather climates. Guess I may have to rethink rule #1 …

March 2011
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