Friday, May 3, 2013

Pondering the Aging Experience

Most of the people I know in my own age bracket ~ say, 55-65 ~ are moving into that time of life in which our parents are thinking about their final decades, or are already in or beyond the thick of it, with surviving parents needing or no longer able to make care  and end-of-life decisions.
My dad is 81, and I'm trying to encourage him to consider the alternatives that might be available to him, should he no longer be able to live on his own or with his partner ~ in his two-story house in the woods, two miles from town.  He tells me that his preference, should he become ill or disabled,  is for a quick death. 
Well, yes.  His hope is hardly a unique one. 
As one of my friends says, all of those people confusedly wandering the halls of Alzheimer's units did not exactly aspire to that particular destiny.
Most of the congregants in my small church are in their seventies and eighties, and several are in their nineties.  I spend much of my pastoral care time visiting with them.  I pepper them with questions about life from 75-95, as I wonder what matters to them now, how they prefer to spend their time, and what they think about where and with whom they live. 
With all of the above in mind, as well as the details of the countless stories  that come my way, I suggested to my group of women friends that we gather to discuss some of the things that our parents let slide ~ at least insofar as we know.  We've decided on three topics:
Where and how would we like to live if we become unable to live on our own?
What are our end-of-life preferences in the event of impending death?
What are our wishes for our funerals?
Oh, those are uplifting topics, you may be saying. 
But I see among the members of my congregation how seldom they are discussed, how stymied adult children are when backed into a corner in which decision-making is required, and how almost no one is able to suggest music or readings for a parent's funeral. 
My friends and I, most of us, have known one another for 25 years, and we are going to be counting on each other to take care of these things ~ but we don't know enough about these matters in general, let alone what we think about them.
We met this past week to begin to discuss the first question.  We quickly realized that the options seem limitless until they don't, that those of us who still have husbands are not necessarily in agreement with them about where to live as we age, and that money is an enormous factor.   
We talked more seriously than we have in the past about what my son calls our "commune" -- our somewhat serious desire to live together, or even nearer to one another than we do now, and hire someone to provide care if we need it, as an alternative to institutional living.
We talked over the huge issue of moving either directly in with children, or to assisted living care near them ~ only to have to confront the possibility of another move if those children decide to move elsewhere for new jobs.
A couple of us are going to make some visits ~ to a nearby apartment building which caters to the elderly, and is practically on top of shopping and dining possibilities - no driving required, and to one or two of the crème-de-la-crème retirement communities.
[Me?  I don't have a great need for independence (as opposed to solitude), I hate to cook, and I have a constant craving for stimulating conversation and engagement, at least at the level of observation, with respect to arts and politics and knowledge in general.  So to me, the retirement community connected with Oberlin College, about an hour away, or the one right here at Case Western and inhabited by many of Cleveland's movers and shakers, sounds ideal.  My husband isn't nearly at interested (i.e., not at all interested), and they are probably both out of our price range anyway.]
Our little group didn't get very far, but at least we are talking and asking questions.


  1. There is a movement called co-housing which is really interesting to me. Everyone has their own house or condo, but shares in maintenance of common areas, including a common area with dining room and kitchen. They agree to eat together x times a week and each takes shared responsibility to cook. I've been investigating such arrangements, but I'd love to be a part of a group to build one.

    1. That sounds cool -- as long as there's a way out of the cooking. Take-out on my night?

    2. oh, yes...that does sound cool!

  2. Good for you for having these conversations!

    My BFF and I have a plan to live next door to each other in our golden years. (She is very very organized and I am very very not, and we both need our own space).

    1. So she's going to hang out at your house when she needs a break from herself? LOL!

  3. I once took a course on the stages of life, with a section devoted to death and dying. At the time, when I was still uninitiated in the heart wrenching realities of death, I asked some others if they would be interested in doing the class with me. I was surprised at the lackluster response. I recognize now that those I asked had already escorted someone very dear through the process. I had a moment of insight. Perhaps many people feel that denial and avoidance is the best approach, and that there will be time enough to get ready for death only when it's absolutely necessary to get ready. Maybe it's shortsighted or foolish, but maybe it's a better choice not to waste a precious moment of life on planning for death. I don't know. Just a thought.

    1. I have seen so many people "miss" the final experience of saying good-bye when it was right there in front of them, because they were focused on the next clinical trial, the wedding next summer, whatever. And that may be the best way for them -- to each her own. But I have lost so many people in instantaneous and completely unexpected ways that it seems to me a privilege not to be missed, to be intentional and conscious and aware for the final months/weeks/days, should that opportunity present itself.

  4. My mom was an amazing woman and a role model, not only to me, but truly to everyone who ever met her. She prepared for her death by doing everything from buying a plot to choosing which dress she would be buried in.

    Years before she died she wrote a letter and gave copies to my brothers and me. We were instructed to read it after she died. The letter contained some final thoughts she wanted to share with us along with detailed information about where we could find important documents, keys, etc. and exactly who she wanted to speak at her funeral, where she wanted it to be, etc.

    She had even told me to plan a party for after the service and she insisted that we have good food and fun. I told her that we'd have a gathering, but I couldn't promise that it would be a party.

    She did all of this to spare us the agony of decision making at a time of great sadness. Having dealt with the sudden and unexpected death of her husband (our dad) 30 years earlier, she knew how difficult that time is and we considered her input a great gift to us.

    She had organized all of her papers into labelled folders, making our dealings much simpler. When her cancer advanced to it's final stage, she had her condo repainted (though she had done it only 2 years earlier), just so we would have an easier time selling it.

    One of my goals is to get more organized and emulate my mother. I don't want to leave my daughter with a terrible mess, especially since she no longer has a sibling with whom she can share the mess.

    You're also smart to make decisions about how to manage the declining years. I haven't gotten that far yet in my thinking, but I know I will have to discuss it. At this point, I'm hoping that exercise and a healthy diet will let me delay some of these decisions.