Society views aging in very different ways. Rock star Jimmy Hendrix, who said, “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens,” saw aging as something positive. British author Tom Stoppard, who said, “Age is a high price to pay for maturity,” sees aging as something negative. Comedian Jack Benny said it best, though, when he uttered, “Age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!”
Life for older people can be complex. Various factors determine how society looks upon, and deals with, the numerous challenges facing older people today.
My parents had been getting older, but I never paid much attention to changes in their lifestyles. My father had heart surgery, but recovered to continue living what I considered a “normal” lifestyle for people of his age. My mother, who prided herself in the fact that she was seldom ill, lived independently, took care of my Dad and her two older sisters, and ate whatever she wanted. Together, my parents traveled to Italy for vacation.
So, when they both unexpectedly died on the same year, in 2010, I was shocked. My mother passed away, in January, while recovering from heart surgery. My father died, suddenly, in August.
My Dad lived the last eight months of his life with me, and my husband, in our downtown three-bedroom condo. We moved him to Chicago, from the East Coast, after the death of my mother. As a career-oriented person, who chose not to have any children, I never expected to be the one caring for him. After all, my Dad and I were never really close, and I detested my strict upbringing.
When my Dad moved into our condo, my life changed. He had several nurses coming in to care for his health, but I prepared his food, gave him medicine, and knelt down on my hands and knees to scrub the floor of his juice spills, scattered food, and toilet accidents. He was unable to care for himself. (He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which, as we came to find out later, was incorrect. Instead, he actually suffered from Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH) — a buildup of too much water in the brain. NPH is a reversible and treatable syndrome but, because he was an old man, his doctor misdiagnosed him with Parkinson’s and left it at that — a terrible injustice that unnecessarily robbed him of dignity during the last 10 years of his life.) I saw how difficult it was for him to do routine tasks such as eating, bathing, and buttoning his shirt. Caring for my father made me realize the special needs of older people.
Learning about the lives of aging people becomes more important as the world’s population ages. Unfortunately, older people are, too often, marginalized in our society, where the emphasis is on a youthful culture.
I realized, from caring for my Dad, that the person inside remains the same. Only your outer shell changes. Think of yourself ― how you are today ― but wearing the skin and wrinkles of an older person. While you may think, and act, the same, the way others treat you will differ greatly from how people treated you ten years ago, when you were a younger person. It’s so unfair, isn’t it? However, time is the great equalizer. We will ALL get old.
As a society, we need to be more educated about aging so that we can better understand, and respect, our older loved ones and neighbors, and to learn to treat them as individuals. Too often, older people all get lumped into the same age category when, in reality, they lead different lives, and have varying needs, with each decade. Just as people in their teens, 20s, 30s, and 40s, differ, so do people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. That’s a scientific fact. I cringe when I see television commercials which make fun of older people.
Gerontologists define 35 as the last year of “youth.” But, some people have been known to do their best work as late bloomers. The next time you think that you’re too old to do something important, just remember that Peter Roget invented the Roget Thesaurus at the age of 73. ✿