Like many people my age, I have aging parents. In my case, that’s a mom approaching her 90s with some medical challenges and the difficult adjustment of living alone for the first time in her adult life. It’s a struggle, and I think it has forced her and her two sons to face up to some uncomfortable truths over the last few years, particularly since my dad died in the summer of 2012.
One of those: how I will confront the inevitabilities of old age (if I am fortunate enough to get there). For my parents’ generation, it was common for parents to be taken care of by one or more of their children, either in the family home or by moving into a child’s home. There was (is?) a stigma about nursing homes and retirement homes. My mother has chosen to stick it out as long as is possible in her home, the home she was born in. But unlike her parents, she doesn’t have a child who will “take care of her.” I live a 90-minute flight away, my brother is six hours away by car. Thanks to my father’s service in the Second World War, she receives a number of services that have allowed her to stay in her house — the house her grandfather bought and had moved onto the property before the Great Depression — despite the encroachments of age on her body.
For people in my generation, the rules are a bit different. I have no children to rely on. I expect that any support that my partner or I will need as we age won’t be provided by family members, but by paying people from our retirement savings and investments. While I love our house, I think that when the time comes for us to retire I’ll be able to sell it and leave with no great emotional wrench; including our house, I’ve lived in about seven different places in my adult life, and I think I’ll be able to move again.
But things have been different for my generation for a while. Here I am, typing this in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt with a graphic representation of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series. I never saw my dad with a pair jeans (what he would call dungarees) on or a t-shirt in my lifetime. My partner doesn’t wear housecoats like my mom does, or consider the maintenance of an immaculate home a key goal, as her mom and mine do. She works outside the home, while my mom gave up her job as a nurse in ’53, when she married, and never collected another paycheque.
We are — or at least I think we seem — “younger” than our parents at the same age. We go to concerts by loud bands, we dress differently, we participate in different recreational and sporting activities, we expect that our lives will be characterized by being and acting young for a long, long time. Thinking of Shakespeare’s seven ages, we’re unwilling to enter the fifth age, of justice and solemnity. We want to be lovers and soldiers forever.
So when we age, will we really be different from our parents? Will our expectations be different; will we make different choices? Or am I flattering myself by thinking that I’ll make other choices, better choices?
It’s easy to tell yourself that you know better than the “old folks.” But those better decisions and more logical choices are much easier to make in the world of the distant future than in the world of the cold present.
It seems to me that the real challenge for us all is to strike the constantly shifting balance between independence and dependence, between insulating our elders from danger and allowing them to live as they choose, between being determined and being bullheaded, between giving in and denying reality, between taking responsibility for our health and accepting support when offered. There’s no magic formula, no easy answer.
(photo: cc-licenced by Flickr user Lars Ploughmann)