Getting Very Old

by Nancy Jane Moore

I’ve always planned to live forever. Or die trying.

Rationally I know human beings — including me — are mortal. Still there’s a lot more I want to do in life — including enjoying lazy Sunday afternoons without guilt — and it would help to have an infinite number of years to do them in. Besides, there are any number of interesting things going on in the world that aren’t likely to be finished before I shuffle off, and I resent it that I won’t get to know how they turned out.

But my father is 93 now and his mind is slipping away. He’s in an assisted living facility right now and sooner or later we’ll have to move him to some form of nursing care, because he needs a lot of help taking care of daily life.

Visiting him every week and taking care of his medical needs and business matters has thrown a bucket of cold water on my illusions about old age.

My father’s mother lived to be 91. She was still mentally alert until the day she died, still doing her own cooking and taking care of her house. She was frail and had stopped driving, but other than that she could still enjoy life. One morning she just didn’t wake up.

Even at the time, I knew that was a happy ending, much as I missed my grandmother.

I used to read the obits and thrill at the people who lived into their 90s or 100s. Now, though, I find myself wondering how many of them suffered from dementia in those last years. A lot of times the obituaries don’t say that. I don’t know if people are embarrassed about it or just more interested in remembering the person as they used to be.

Up until a couple of years ago, you could still get my father going on politics, especially Texas politics. He was a proud Democrat and knew not just the current story, but the history behind it.

And he told stories. In the last few years, most of the stories I heard were old ones, going back to his childhood. But he also told stories from his years as a reporter and occasionally he talked about his experiences in World War II. As his memory started to go, it seemed like the war became foremost in his mind.

Mike Wallace died last weekend. He was the same age as my father and in the same profession, though since Daddy did his work in print and Wallace was on TV, Wallace was a lot better known. Apparently Wallace was also suffering from dementia. A blog on the NY Times quoted this about his memory loss from a recent interview by his son Chris:

“He still recognizes me and knows who I am, but he’s uneven. The interesting thing is, he never mentions ’60 Minutes.’ It’s as if it didn’t exist. It’s as if that part of his memory is completely gone. The only thing he really talks about is family — me, my kids, my grandkids, his great-grandchildren. There’s a lesson there. This is a man who had a fabulous career and for whom work always came first. Now he can’t even remember it.”

I get the feeling Chris Wallace thinks the “lesson there” is that family is more important than work, even for someone who cared so passionately about his work that he kept doing it into his 90s.

I think that’s horseshit. It makes dementia sound like a romantic illness in which the true person comes out, instead of a cruel disease of the brain in which memories and the ability to understand the world around you slips away.

Maybe Chris Wallace wants to believe his father regretted not spending more time with family. Me, I just want my whole father back. I’d like to hear his (probably profane) views on the current crop of presidential candidates. I’d like to know what he thinks about Texas redistricting. I want to hear him tell stories about his family’s move to California in 1923.

I want him to tell me what to do and know it’s a rational decision. Instead, I have to tell him what to do. I have to decide whether he needs to see a doctor, whether a problem should be dealt with to make him comfortable, whether to spend all that money to replace his hearing aids the next time he loses them.

And since he can’t really tell me what he needs, I have to guess at what decision he would make if he could.

Susan Jacoby had a fine piece on the subject of old age in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago. Her mother, in the hospital at 89, asked a doctor, “Is there anything you can do here to give me back the life I had last year, when I wasn’t in pain every minute?” And when the doctor said no, she went home and did not have any further major medical procedures in her last year of life.

Fortunately, she was still able to make those decisions. Jacoby uses her op-ed to make us all remember to prepare living wills and let our relatives and caretakers know what we’d like while we still can.

She ends the piece with an observation I found particularly inspiring for myself:

I do not consider it my duty to die for the convenience of society. I do consider it my duty, to myself and younger generations, to follow the example my mother set by doing everything in my power to ensure that I will never be the object of medical intervention that cannot restore my life but can only prolong a costly living death.

I haven’t quite given up on immortality, but if my body or mind have different ideas about it when I get old, I don’t want intervention just to keep the shell going. That’s not living.

For a couple of years after my mother died, my father shared some of his stories on a blog called “I Heard It at the Icehouse.” Over the next few weeks, I’m going to post some of those stories here.

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Flashes of IlluminationFlashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.

My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.

Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.

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Getting Very Old — 10 Comments

  1. My father, who had been a volunteer EMT for twenty years, lived and thrived into his 98th year; he was legally blind, but otherwise sharp as a tack–occasionally annoyingly so. He could be egocentric and demanding, but that was less a matter of aging than of his own nature.

    When, after a recurrent series of pneumonias, the doctors discovered that the muscle diverting food to the stomach and air to the lungs had weakened, and he was inhaling food, they suggested several kinds of intervention. Dad, who knew exactly what intubation or feeding tube would do to his quality of life, said “Hell no,” and demanded to be discharged from the hospital. We engaged hospice care for him, he went home, had five days where he was sharp as a tack (and still flirting with every female within range) and five days where, slipping away, “a babbled of green fields”, and then he was gone, two months shy of 98.

    I consider that a good and a graceful death, and in that, as in many other ways, he was my hero.

    I’m sorry for what is happening with your father, Nancy. Everything you’ve said about him tells me what a great guy he was.

    • I agree that your father had a good death, the kind we can all hope for. By making decisions like your father did, we can improve our chances, too. I guess we have to accept that we will die of something to make the decision your father made, but once we get over that hurdle, we can do our best to have the end of life not be a dreadful mass of hospital procedures and misery.

      The horrible thing is that there are diseases that don’t fall into that category. Dementia is an obvious one. Thanks for your support, Mad. Yeah, you would have liked my father, especially when he was in full storytelling mode.

  2. Hugs. that’s all any of us can do from a distance.

    My mother died of congestive heart failure. We had her in foster care when assisted living was no longer viable. She watched “Jeopardy” religiously, even repeats and often answered the question before the host finished reading it. She read voraciously until she couldn’t hold a book any longer. I think that’s what killed her more the internal failing of her body. She couldn’t read by herself. I read to her, but it wasn’t the same. Then in the middle of the night, on a hot summer Monday morning she had a massive stroke. There was still a spark of intelligence behind her eyes, but could not speak. She wanted to. But the connection was gone. I watched that spark fail until by Friday morning there was nothing left and she slipped away.

    I’d had months to prepare for that moment. It was still devastating.

    Good luck and know you have all of us to virtually hold your hand and offer shoulders to cry on.

  3. I look forward to your father’s stories, Nancy Jane.

    It is never easy. I lost my father last Thanksgiving. My Dad had most of his wits right up until he stopped taking his bucket full of meds, and died five days later in hospice. He waited until my sisters and I went for a meal with relatives, and my mother was dozing, and then slipped away. He died of liver failure – not a disease I recommend to anyone. My regret was that he was just shy of 80, and if I could have convinced him to make diet changes even ten years before, he might have had another 20 good years. He did outlive every other male on his father’s side.

    My mother-in-law died in her sleep in the wee hours of my 42nd birthday. That was how she’d prayed to go, and although I miss her still, I know that it was a good death for a 72 year old woman who was still working a full time job because she needed the money.

    Perhaps all we can do is keep telling their stories, and hug each other when the going is rough.

  4. I appreciate the support from everyone. And I’m trying to learn both about what I can do to keep myself healthy as long as possible and also about the things that are beyond my control.

    • Thanks, Vonda. I don’t know if it’s brave; I’m learning that talking about this stuff helps me cope a little better. Also, what Chris Wallace said made me so angry that I had to say something, and I really couldn’t say it without talking about my personal life. I really hate hearing people say things that imply the person with dementia is the “true” person. That’s not been my experience at all.

  5. Dementia took my Grandpa in his late 80’s, but it wasn’t diagnosed until he was 65. But it was too late then as he was forgetting things then. Grandpa Killips was a wonderfully intelligent man who was well-spoken, well-read, had a brilliant collection of books (which I have taken possession of a few) and he kept a regular journal – which I also have in my possession as well; all of them from 1926 – 1984.
    However, it was painful to watch him slowly vanish from us into the fogged world that took his memory away from us. He eventually wound down to a point where his hair turned from white and thick to thin and wispy; and his skin was sallow and sagged. Grandpa left us on December 1st, 1997; and I was thankful he did as he was no longer really with us.

    But watching my Grandparents grow old like this has made me determined to keep myself mentally and physically active for longer. I’m going to read more and watch less television. I’m going to be more curious about the world around me and travel more and enjoy my friends more and love more, dance more and just be more… to enjoy life like my Grandparents and parents have.
    I know this may seem obvious, however I missed out big in my life for around a decade in my 20’s. I have Epilepsy and my condition took a long time to control. Now I’m almost 40 and I’m well enough to travel again (as I traveled overseas when I was in my early 20’s; and around the time my Grandpa passed away). This is something I want to do again before it becomes too late for me.

  6. You remind me of Jane Eyre. Who responded to a fire-and-brimstone sermon by explaining her plan to stay very healthy and not to die. With the very best will in the world, it is probably not possible to achieve a good easy death by just working at it. You have to be lucky as well, very lucky. And you had better have great health insurance!

  7. Yes, if there is one thing I am learning it’s that there are things beyond one’s control. My mother died of emphysema four years ago. If she hadn’t smoked, or if she had even quit much earlier than she did (she finally quit when her emphsyema got bad), she might still be with us. But I can’t think of anything my father could have done to prevent dementia. Some people do things that shorten their life spans, but others get sick for no discernible reason and a healthy, active lifestyle is no guarantee. Maybe someday we’ll know more about what causes dementia and how to both prevent and treat it, but right now it’s pretty much guesswork.

    You know, whenever I read of someone’s death, I look at the circumstances and come up with ways I would have avoided it. I used to be very good at this, but my father’s situation has made me very aware that while some things are avoidable, not everything is. I’m hoping I’m like my grandmother: alert and able to take care of myself until one day when I don’t wake up. But my father had planned on following his mother’s example, too.