Afraid to Be Old

Afraid to Be Old

When people retire and move away to some warm climate and wonderful scenery, they’ve forgotten that doing old age well needs lots of supporting characters.

It’s okay to go off and have fun for a few years. Just don’t think you’ve planned adequately for retirement that way. Here’s the thing — if you haven’t admitted you’re going to be old, you’re already in mired deep in potential trouble.

Yes, meeting pals just like you and living life like an elderly frat gang — that’s just super. But when some health thing happens to you, people in the playtime of retirement often don’t want to reminded of the essential fragility of life.

No, you really need a whole gathering of different kinds of people. All ages, all backgrounds. Let me see, oh yes, now I remember — it’s called a village, a town, a city.

When people are afraid to be old, they act in a kind of superstitious way that says, don’t do anything “old”. So, don’t put grab bars around your bathroom, just for just in case. Don’t worry about living up a 50-step stone stairway to your house. Walk everywhere, eat carefully, think positive thoughts.

Yeah, sure, that’s all good. But, friends, then there’s life. And, as John Lennon said, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Let me give you some examples.

Cedric-the-artist was a grumpy old gentleman who walked everywhere and lived in a hilly town, up one hundred stone steps. The walking and the steps kept his legs very trim. However, he developed diabetes, didn’t watch his diet and he fell down his steps in a dizzy moment, rolling from his front gate to the bottom. He was never able to live at home after that and his general disagreeableness prevented friendships growing around him.

Bob and Beth were a lovely tennis-playing couple, in their late 60s. They bounded healthily into my caregiver support group, month after month, often in their tennis whites, glowing with exercise. I asked them once whether they were caregivers and they said cheerfully, “Oh no, we’re just doing our homework.”

Very smart, I thought. When I asked where their families lived, they said in Maryland and Florida. And then they added something a little chilling.

“We like to live here in Arizona because then our children won’t see us getting old.”

Some months after this, I had a phone call late at night. A very distressed woman was telling me about her husband having a stroke. After some confusion, I realized this was Beth. Bob had been felled by a severe stroke. We talked more and a few other things emerged. They had never married and Beth was sending Bob back to his children in Maryland. She was moving to Florida.

“Oh no,” she said, “I can’t possibly look after him.” Neither did she want to move near him. She was horror-stricken by what had befallen him.

If getting old and having some stuff happening wasn’t so filled with horror for her, it might have been a story with a better outcome for them both. But counting on never getting old, with life never happening while you’re making other plans — that seems to rip the heart out of every possibility.

I like it when old people can grow up as well as grow old. I like it when they say, “You know, sometimes stuff happens and you just have to get on with it.”

That to me is real old age wisdom.

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