In a recent post by blogger Lynne Spreen at AnyShinyThing.com, she makes the case that longevity isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I couldn’t agree more.
When people learn that mom lived to be nearly 102, the first response is often, “You have longevity on your side. You’ll probably live to be 105.” Oh goody, I think. But then out loud I say, It’s a crapshoot.
Mom was the only one in her family line who lived past 86, let alone 100. She was an anomaly and none too happy about it.
She used to say, “growing old isn’t for sissies,” a common-enough cliché these days. Until you’ve lived it or witnessed it, it’s just that, a cliché. She knew the reality.
When I met Ben in 2004, he told me his parents made a pact when they were first married that they would take themselves out before needing a nursing home. After his dad had strokes in his late 60s, they took their sailboat into California’s Monterey Bay and sunk it, with them on it. Ben and his brother grieved their passing, but accepted their decision.
I was angry. How could they do that? I asked him. But over the next few years while caretaking mom I let go of my judgments about their decision. Even though they ended their lives knowing that their daughter-in-law was pregnant with their second grandchild, and that child is now 33 and questions why her grandmother chose to leave, I found a way to understand.
Not long ago, Ben’s friend told him he will drive into the mountains when it is his time, emulating the native peoples. When old age made them useless to the tribe, they stayed behind when the tribe moved on, or wandered off into the forest. By the time Ben’s friend realizes it’s time to drive into the mountains, he may not be able to do so. If you’re in a nursing home unable to stand up, no one is going to drive you into the woods.
Ben’s parents feared that loss of control, which is why they made the decision when they did. They preserved the right to decide for themselves.
It would not be my choice, nor would I recommend it, but I respect it. Only they could tell their granddaughter if it was worth it.
Mom was 95 in 2004 when Ben told me about his parents. Mom kept telling me she was “ready to go,” and had been saying that for years. She had fallen numerous times, nearly died of pneumonia in her late 80s, fell down 16 stairs at 90, got cellulitis and then lymphedema, had skin cancer surgeries and minor strokes before the age of 95. She had lost three husbands. She was tired.
Each time my brother came to visit from California and prepared to return home he would say, “Well, this may be the last time I see mom.”
But each day she arose, did her exercises, brushed her teeth, washed her face, put on makeup and prepared herself for the day. She did not appear ready to go, but she was simply making the best of each day presented to her.
Then she was diagnosed with lymphoma deep within her pharynx (her family doctor gave her Sudafed for three months before an ENT specialist saw a tumor that was choking her to death).
After the first of two surgeries she refused further treatment–until the tumor grew back a second time. Eventually, radiation put her in remission.
After that were more falls, strokes, broken bones, and the desire to give up.
She lived six more years.
She was able to avoid nursing homes because she was blessed with a remarkable constitution and bounced back after each medical drama. She had adequate funds to keep her in a nice retirement home, money to pay for part-time caregivers, and a daughter willing to be her long-term advocate and caretaker.
The day mom died March 4, 2011, she was still living in an apartment by herself. She was dressed nicely, her hair coiffed, makeup on. She would take a morning nap before going down to lunch, where she would eat alone because the last of her friends were gone. She was nearly deaf and far older than anyone at the home, making it difficult to make new friends.
When the housekeeper came for the weekly clean, mom asked her to tie the bow on the back of her blouse. When the housekeeper left, mom took her nap and when she got up to leave for lunch she first went to the bathroom. There she died on the toilet, alone at the end. But just like Ben’s parents it was on her terms.
Both life and death decisions took uncommon courage. And each example is on opposite ends of a spectrum.
A few of us boomers will live to be 100 or maybe older. (And may you be blessed with uncommon courage and good health).
Many of us will live at home, either with family or on our own until we are urged to retreat to some kind of assisted living or a nursing home.
Many of us may be blessed with sudden death before some calamity assails us with years of nursing home care.
Others of us will simply stay at home, tending our gardens, until one day someone makes the 911 call. Instead of staying home and saying our goodbyes, we will be rushed to the hospital where they will perform CPR, crushing our ribs before they insert the feeding tube. May we all avoid that scenario. (hint hint DNR on fridge).
However we may end up, the boomer generation is swelling. If our health care system continues to be a downstream model (treat the symptoms after they’ve already developed) and Medicare provides for surgeries but not preventative care, we are in for it.
In fact, if growing old isn’t for sissies, then uncommon courage is required of us all.
It’s either a will to live or a will to be free when one dies. Or both. How we organize that is the task of the aging and of the ages.