The post yesterday, the one about Swedish women being stuck by themselves because their only choices are fat, stupid men reminded me of a recent opinion piece in The New York Times. Part of an ongoing series, the essay concerns the fears of those who grow old without children or partners:
As a single childless woman, I share the fear of my readers [she quotes a few] and no amount of financial preparation for a prolonged old age calms me. For sure, my long-term care insurance policy will buy me a home health aide and pay to retrofit my house if I’m able to remain here, or contribute to care in another setting. I have the luxury of savings and a mortgage that will be paid off by the time I’m 70. If I need a geriatric case manager, I’ll probably be able to afford one. I count my blessings.
But, having witnessed the “new old age’’ from a front-row seat, I’m haunted by the knowledge that there is no one who will care about me in the deepest and most loving sense of the word at the end of my life. No one who will advocate for me, not simply for adequate care but for the small and arguably inessential things that can make life worth living even in compromised health.
If this person is single and childless because she chose to live her life that way, I do not understand her sudden fear of the consequences of her choice.
Dying alone? Is there another way out (if you’re not a jihadist)? Everyone dies alone, even those surrounded by a caring family. Our death is but a logical extension of how we have lived our lives. If we have lived them focused on the things that will not be present when we are very old — youthful exuberance, independence, travel, freedom to move from this place to that on a whim, etc. — then we haven’t prepared.
It’s difficult but not impossible to face the fact of getting old. American culture does not honor that part of life. Movies or books about old age are the exception rather than the rule. Thus it’s understandable that one could overlook mortality if one severely limited the channels of information to, say, the current media. No old people there, just sudden death like, say, Tim Russert’s.
And our culture is particularly ill-suited to contemplating for very long things which cannot be “fixed.” Throw all the money in the world at the problem of age and what you have is antiquity covered with dollar bills. Not much help, is it? Next problem, please.
Diana West’s book, The Death of the Grown-Up could as easily be called “the dearth of the grown-up” because there are darn few mature people in public evidence. It is painful to see adults dressed like children. Men in baggy short pants barely reaching their knobby knees and women in that universal uniform, denim jeans. Both of them sport T-shirts and all their clothing have labels in plain view, just so you’ll know that what looks like something from a consignment shop is really quite expensive. Both of them tread the sidewalks in shoes that resemble puffy biscuits while shouldering backpacks more suitable for school children. In cold weather they don some version of long-sleeved sweat shirts — the kind of clothing one would wear to chop wood or rake leaves.
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As Ms. West says, it’s a case of “arrested development.” However, even the most juvenile among us eventually age out. The notion of mortality hits as hard as if they’d stepped on to an unseen board and been thwacked upside the head.
“What?? Me?? Mortal?? No way, José.”
Each age has its particular struggle. When you’re a toddler, your job is learning to walk. When you’re a little older, it’s learning to decode language, both to read and to write your mother tongue. You learn to lie, and you learn the importance of truth. Eventually you have to traverse the minefield of intimacy with the opposite (or same) sex, and to invest your sense of industry or initiative into being a productive part of the larger community.
Job, marriage, and children used to be the usual order but that particular part of the railroad track has been torn up for repairs. People still make their way tentatively, often on foot, through this part of life. Sometimes they are so busy looking at the path in front of them that they fail to notice the sign ahead: “Old Age is not for the Faint of Heart”.
That’s where you can get thwacked by the board — it’s that sign warning you what lies ahead. For some it comes as a complete surprise. Old age? They rush off to science, begging for answers, for a note to bring to teacher excusing them from this part of the journey. In the note will be the secret to immortality.
No one tells you, except the brave few elders who are willing to speak up, that the real struggle of old age is not bad health or reduced circumstances. The real struggle is with Despair. This is a confrontation which cannot be dispensed with, and to it you will bring the same characteristics you brought to those earlier struggles. Our encounter with old age will be no different from the way we navigated earlier uncharted territory, except…
Except that some of us — those who have accumulated enough inner wealth to accept what cannot be changed — will simply go into that good night with the same grace they lived through the earlier rough spots.
The writer of the essay in The New York Times has convinced herself that if she is surrounded by enough people who really care about her in her infinite individuality, then she will not have to face full on the rigors of old age or the rigor mortis of death. What a dreamer. All her life, she’s done it on her own and now she wants to reverse course and hasn’t a clue how to begin. Wait till sales clerks begin calling her “honey” or when the traffic light changes and other adults around her offer to help her negotiate the curb.
Perhaps when she stops running in place and calms down she will notice that the gate out is much the same as the gate in: we enter one by one and we leave the same way, no matter how many people are gathered around for the event.
Personally, I’d like to go the same way William Buckley chose to leave: he was writing at his desk and then he put down his pen and died.