On aging

Sugar-the dog is getting old.  She is a rescue dog, and her first 7 years were hard on her, tied up and beaten daily – outside a meth trailer – an alarm when intruders approached.  A rope. An empty bowl. A skeletal body. A patch of dirt. Frozen nights. When I look at her today, I shudder at her survival.  At mine too.  At all of ours.

Most nights she sleeps like this while I watch Miss Marple videos.  She watches TV upside-down.  I know this because when a dog is on screen, she wags her tail against my chest and its grey foxy tip brushes one or more of my old-man-chins.

We are getting older, she and I.  We are entering the final third of our lives (knock wood.) As things open, I am doing more and more public speaking about aging. More and more passionately. More and more informed by first-hand experience. Indeed, I am speaking to a large group tonight.

Last week I was quite ill with strep throat. I was weak.  I had balance issues from dehydration. I had trouble eating and swallowing. I spent time reflecting on how often our aging clients experience these troubling things as they enter their final decades.

My great uncle Jack was born the year after Queen Victoria died. His was the last generation to stay home and care for elderly family given that he was unmarried. He was rewarded by my uncle placing him into an insane asylum because, in his eighties, his memory was gone, and he was given to a bit of rage. My mother, in a heroic move took my uncle to court, sued, and moved Jack to an eldercare home.  He wept every day there because he missed his home.  And probably for other reasons too. But at least he was safe, and his money was secure.

There is much celebration about how many older people are on Facebook.  “They are so connected to their families!” people say. Perhaps.  Or they are starving people watching a buffet on their computer screens.  We send the elderly photos of distantly-moved-away family and really believe that they are connected.  We text elderly family and really believe we are “staying in touch.” But look at the term: “…in touch…” The prosecution rests.

In such a hyper-connected society, we humans, in the west, have never been so alone, so isolated and so frightened. And our rage is just fear turned inward.

I would have liked to get to know my great uncle Jack. I am now approaching my 60’s.  Time flies. I am getting old.  Things ache that never hurt before.  Bags form under my eyes where tight, elastic skin used to be.  My neck-skin hangs like curtain swags. Pill bottles line up like soldiers every morning at attention ready to fight the war of time on my behalf. My hair is grey and mostly, well, gone.  And I am getting a bit forgetful. My skin is thin – physically and metaphorically. Great uncle Jack’s earliest photos were of him in dresses. They did that in those days though I still do not know why. The Victorians needed a therapist. Young pictures in his sailor suit look like me at his age.  Great Uncle Jack’s elderly ones do too.

In his last months, Jack was moved to a bed from his usual position in a chair in the eldercare center lobby where he stared all day at the life-sized painting of a tango dancer.  In his bed, he silently wept all day.  One day my mother asked that the tango dancer painting be brought to his room and hung across from his bed.  He stopped weeping.  He occasionally smiled as he looked at her.  He died peacefully a few weeks later.

America’s senior population has grown from 8% in 1950 to 16.5% today and will reach 30% of our population by 2030.  With pharmaceuticals and medical “advances” we are not living longer.  Rather, we are aging longer. And many, most indeed, are aging alone and afraid and in great pain – indeed one fall away from a decade-long bed-sentence. And the problem is not that this is happening.  The problem is that we are not discussing it.

Go to your computer.  Buy a flight or bus ticket to visit an elderly friend or relative.  Or walk to one nearby. Don’t call.  Don’t text. Don’t post pics of the kids. GO to them.  Just for a few days. Yes, they are cranky and smell off – so will you one day. Cup their face in your hands – their cold face with your warm hands. Hold their hands – their cold hands in your warm hands. Make soup and let them tell you their stories – share their wisdom.

I abandoned my grandmother, Uncle Jack’s sister, in her final decades.  Her age was ugly after so many decades of her elegance.  Her slurred speech was ugly after decades of wit and ability at the British Embassy in Washington. In my 20’s she was in her 80’s.  In her dementia she kept telling people that I, her grandson, was fighting in a terrible war.  People would smile and fluff her pillow tutt-tutting that I was just fine.

As I look back, she was right. She knew things.

So today, I seek out aging seniors.  I make tea and we sit and talk, and they teach me.  It’s not too late.

(Note to readers: It has been four months since I have written a Daily Sip in mid-June.  I needed the summer to focus on my day-job in some big lifts.  Such is the life of an author – one finds bits of time to write. However even throughout this time of sip-fasting, people register for the receipt of the Sip weekly, and emails arrive daily asking about their return.  And so, I begin again, though not daily. The readership (open-rate) is about 9,000 and registration about 18,000 -so it seems worthy to keep doing as long as people seem to benefit from an occasional meditation on domestic spirituality, but I’ll no longer rant on the Church given that the Titanic seems to be well past hull breach and so to do so would be like shooting an old dog in a small but golden cage.)


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