My grandfather will be 90 this August, and my grandmother is 85. Let's face it, they are old. It is interesting how the word "old" resonates with people, and usually not in a positive way.
Old is such a loaded word. I mean, when things get old, we usually replace them, right? And it seems that for a long time, the old in America were treated as replaceable and possibly, disposable. Not for the Americans is the way of many Second and Third World cultures to revere the old for their experience and wisdom. In a society obsessed with youth, the old are an uncomfortable reminder of what we all will face- our bodies changing, wrinkling, and the inevitable, death.
Not too long ago, I watched a Frontline episode entitled "Living Old." It pointed out that soon, one out of every three Americans, thanks to those baby-boomers, will be over the age of 65. It raised all sorts of questions about how we treat the elderly, and how the face of medicine is evolving rapidly to respond to this ever-growing segment.
Americans are living longer and longer lives, and even though the boomers try to deny their years, it brings a new dimension to how we as a society think of and treat the elderly. For instance, how many of your parents (or you, for that matter) have living wills or instructions on how to proceed in the face of a debilitating illness? The marvel of medicine can keep a person with severe brain damage from a stroke alive almost indefinitely. Without explicit instructions, the family of the loved one is left to agonize over the decision to take out the feeding tubes, or whatever mechanical means are keeping them alive. What a horrible, horrible burden to bear.
And what about people like my grandparents? For a ninety year old, my grandfather is pretty spry. My grandmother, though she had some back surgery and some heart problems, would be considered in fairly good health. But, my grandfather is still driving, even though my grandmother has confessed that she worries about his driving sometimes. Which leads us to the fact that even though none but my sister and I talk about it frankly, my grandmother is slowly losing her memory. I would not put it anywhere near Alzheimer's, but her short-term memory can leave you confused and wondering, did she really forget that we just had the exact same conversation last week?
So there they are, still independent so far, but sort of teetering on the brink of not being independent, and no one in the family is willing to broach the subject, even them. I worry about something catastrophic happening to one or both of them, and all of us scrambling to make a decsion, most likely emotional and stressed, and perhaps not thinking of the best solution. Is that really the best way to go about it?
Yet we seem to have this overwhelming reluctance to talk about aging and dying and death, despite the fact that pretty much everyone is going to encounter it. Well, there goes that reluctance. All of us are going to die. There. And the way to go about dying is to make your wishes clear, preferably in writing, for as many forseeable circumstances that you can think of. We live in such denial of something so fundamental, I sometimes wonder how we manage.