Looking over the hill

Aging has been on my mind for the past couple of years: Dad’s passing; Mom’s ongoing health issues (culminating with breast cancer and ultimate death from stroke); Liz’s decline and transition to assisted living; and my own body afflicted with more aches and pain, diminished strength and slower healing, even my vision with accelerated presbyopia and my optometrist recently informing me of my cataracts (granted: a level 1 on a scale of 10, so very early stage).

I see advancing age everywhere. We recently bought a Google Nest Hub smart home device which displays random photos from years past, and I notice how much younger we all seem in the pictures. Especially me… I see a far more youthful self in photos just a few years old. And I see Paul aging in pictures too. With his retirement in the past months I see behavioral changes in his daily habits, routines and schedules.. even attitude.

50 was my crossover point. At that age everything started to look and feel differently for me. I’m now 52 years old and have always felt younger than I actually am… and I still do. Just looking at the number “52” doesn’t seem applicable to me. And that’s a good thing: I do want to have energy, health and a generally positive outlook no matter my age.

Dad’s sudden passing was a shocker unlike anything I’ve ever faced previously — to lose a parent with no notice was both peculiar and heartbreaking. But over time I found peace with his death, and I don’t have regrets. I vividly recall the final telephone call I had with him on Easter Sunday 2016. I was camping in Anza-Borrego state park and we talked while I lay in the thick green grass in the palm-shaded sun. Our call was light and lively and felt really good, one of those conversations that leaves you sated and satisfied. Dad was in good spirits and we chatted through a span of topics ranging from the weighty world situation to the colors and smells of desert bloom surrounding me. I’m lucky to hold these memories as a final photograph of my dad. He (and we) are fortunate he died quickly and painlessly in his home while he still enjoyed a strong mind and relatively good health.

Mom’s death from stroke was similarly sudden and distressing in that I was present at the hospital at the time of her passing. The subsequent mourning of my mom was very difficult and worsened by the COVID pandemic (she died March 23, 2020 just a week after the lockdowns began in earnest). Yet I now realize that her passing was a relief and blessing; she was battling stage 4 breast cancer which began to impede on her quality of life and the coming months did not look so good. Fortunately in the end she didn’t suffer and also passed quickly; she was spared the slower and painful decline of incurable cancer. We had a very good two final years together living in relative proximity in Southern California. I visited her regularly and helped as best I could in caregiving. Our time together has gifted me with radiant memories to sustain me.

Liz altogether is another story. She is still very much alive in both body and mind, but at 86 years she’s slowing down. She fractured her hip last autumn and remains in considerable pain with her osteoporosis. She’s emotionally fragile with some initial signs of dementia, coupled with her anxiety and depression that has plagued her for decades. Yet she is strong. In September 2020 she moved to as assisted living facility, but her decline with the hip fracture spurred Mark and Paul to find a different home with more medical care and daily support. We moved her about three weeks ago and it’s been a difficult transition for her and the entire family.

I now see firsthand how demanding our bodies become as we age, and the resulting emotional burden this brings to the family. Mark and Paul (and even Amy and myself) have gone above and beyond in ensuring Liz has good care and support. Since none of us live in Sarasota full-time, it’s essential that she be in a care facility that provides for all her needs. Even if we were willing and able, we recognize it’s impossible to be her primary caregivers since we don’t have the expertise to provide 24/7 support. Caring for the elderly with patience and dignity demands Herculean effort.

I’m seeing my possible future through my aging parents’ generation. I am learning how difficult aging is physically and emotionally. There are countless challenges in maintaining a healthy outlook and positive spirit. But it can be found, with some luck (i.e. genes and health) and planning (i.e. motivation and lifestyle). And choice. Betty White passed away this New Year’s Eve at 99 years old. Her kindness, uplifting spirit and endless smile and sense of humor played a central role in her aging with grace.

I want to live well into “healthy old age” — provided my mind and body are strong. And that I have a caring, supportive environment to sustain me. And that I find joy in each day. No stage in life is easy; I see now this is especially so when independence seems to vanish in the autumn of life.

It will be hard for me to accept this, I know. I rely so terribly on my mental acumen and physical strength. This is my undertaking: to find ways to embrace my elder years, to find comfort and joy in whatever my situation, to enjoy the wisdom gained and the luxury of reflection. Simple pleasures promise to make the coming years golden indeed.

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