Aging Gracefully PT 1: It Happens to All of Us
Have you ever seen the commercial where the man, who is caring for his elderly mother, opens his mouth and issues a large silent scream? I can identify with that feeling. Not because my mother is difficult, but because watching someone age and become helpless is hard. Someone who used to be independent, proud and who could carry on a conversation, someone who loved to shop and was my shopping buddy, has now become childlike, helpless and frail. My mother did what she could to stop the aging process when she was younger. She had a face lift, and she was always mindful of her appearance. Now, where the face lift once was, are huge dark pigments under her eyes, drifting down to her cheeks. She still dresses well, and she still puts her hair in a bow, but she has now resigned herself to the fact that no matter what she does or has done, the bodily reminders of aging will persist. Eventually age takes over and there is nothing any of us can do. Now, to me, my mom’s face looks kind of sweet, with a kind of sereneness that was not there before. Maybe this is because she feels she no longer has to adapt to the world. Perhaps this brings a feeling of freedom.
Watching my mom age is also difficult, because, let’s face it, I’m seeing my own future. If I live to be that old, will I be that frail? If I am, who will take care of me? I don’t have any children of my own. The existence I see in my mom is someone who wakes up every morning and moves to the sofa. She turns on the television and reads her newspapers. She still smokes, and her smoking has increased to almost two packs per day. I guess this is because she doesn’t have much else to do. Once a week she leaves the house to go to lunch with me. We alternate between two restaurants because she doesn’t have to walk far to get from the car to our booth. My mom’s legs don’t work very well anymore. They know us well in those restaurants now and greet us cheerfully. Every week, she asks “what do we usually eat here?” and I remind her of what she likes to order.
My mom doesn’t handle her normal responsibilities any more because people took advantage of her not understanding exactly what was going on. I needed to step in as her protector. When I discovered that she was paying for two phone lines with two different telephone companies; when I realized that she was donating to many questionable charities because she thought they were bills; when I saw all of the automatic payments of “credit card protection” on her credit card statements, it was time. My mother is determined to remain in a house that is much too large for her and that she cannot afford to keep up, so I do my best to allow her this final luxury for as long as possible. It is stressful sometimes. What she pays in insurance alone is about half of what she receives from Social Security. I live in dread of pipes bursting in the 50 year old house, of the air conditioner breaking, or of any other catastrophes that could happen at any time. We take it day to day and hope for the best.
This is part of my mom’s aging process, but it is part of my aging process too. I and many of my friends are in the stage where we thought we would be free – the kids are out of the house (for those who have kids), we are financially stable, and we can finally be free to travel or to live out our dreams. But instead we end up becoming responsible for aging parents. Which is ok, I don’t mind, but I can’t help but see my own future when I see my mom’s helplessness and frailties. I know it will come, and I know it will come sooner than I think it will. I, like all young people who aren’t there yet, think it will never happen to me. I won’t get that old, or I won’t be that way when I am old, I tell myself. I’m going to eat right and do yoga and exercise and I’m going to be strong! I won’t allow myself to be frail. And in some ways, this may be within my control. But I’m not doing yoga, and even though I try to eat healthy, at this point I fail more often than not.
I am writing this blog to remind myself and others that if we survive in this crazy world, we are all going to be old and frail. We can all put ourselves into my mother’s shoes. If the Lord permits, we will live to a ripe old age. Aging is not all bad. As I become older, I find contentment in my own company, in reading, in enjoying my crazy garden, and in being myself instead of adapting to fit someone else’s ideal of what I should be. I value friendships more in their messiness and imperfections; I no longer search for the perfect friend or man to complete my life. Don’t get me wrong, I am always open to great relationships in my life with friends, new and old, and with a future Prince Charming. But those things will add layers and quality to a life that is already complete. I have NOT given up on my dreams; in fact I have returned to school to change my career. I work hard every day to ensure that I have a good future. But I also value each day in my present as much as I hold on to my dreams for the future. I am content in both. I am finally, after all of these years, free to be me in all of my glory and faults. But I know I have to act now to age gracefully so that I can be the best me that I can be well into my old age. The time has come to do the yoga, the exercises, run the marathon, and eat right. Will I do it? Well at least I am writing about it. That’s the first step.