So, have y’all noticed just how many people are getting really old these days? I mean, I’ve read all the demographic trend reports about just how the 80 – 100-year old age group is now the fastest growing. And, heck, I live on spit of land where the median age appears to be somewhere in the mid-70s, and every other car is either a Prius or a Mercury Marquis with an 83-year-old behind the wheel. But it wasn’t until I started talking to others in my age group that I realized just how many others have parents about the same age – and in about the same shape – as my father.
It seems that our parents are among the first and biggest beneficiaries of modern medicine’s major gains. They’ve had Medicare for the last 20 years or so, and half the latest pharmaceutical innovations seem to be aimed toward their needs, improving their sex lives, urinary-tract performance and ability to cast wheel-thrown pottery with a ghost over their shoulder. Most of their parents were lucky to make it long enough to milk a couple years out of Social Security, but now our parents are living so long they’re bankrupting the system. But, these negative actuarial aspects aside, I’m finding it very heartening to learn that I am not alone as a child of this greatest generation.
A college friend and I have been emailing regularly the past few days as her father has gone through a health crisis, involving falls, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. She wonders, just how did we get to be so old. Boy, can I relate. A friend from church has a dad complaining about his meds and his hesitancy to raise any questions with his doctor, out of fear of being a bother. Yep, I’ve got that one down, as well. And then there’s the caregivers’ support group I belong to, through which we all – spouses and children – are trying to figure out just how to remember the humor and humanity that made our loved ones, well, loved. In fact, it seems like almost any gathering I go to involving other folks my age or older features at least one little conversation circle covering all these issues all at once.
My father and his twin brother, both now 87, are the youngest from their generation of the family tree. And I’m the youngest of my generation on that side of my family – I’ve just turned 50, and I have first cousins pushing 70. So I have many cousins who have tread this path already with their own parents. But a number of my cousins and siblings also came of age during – or before – the Summer of Love. All of us Boomers have thought of life as being eternal and everlasting, in a very physical – not just spiritual – sense. So, now many of us are confronting the physical signs of decay like they are new phenomena
For our parents, such signs of decay were merely another sign of life. This is a generation that can remember wakes held on their dining room tables, and small children dying of illnesses like scarlet fever or the measles. I have one photo passed down to my stepmother, from her mother’s generation, of a flower-laden corpse surrounded by mourners. I guess this was a form of grief-sharing for that generation, perhaps new to photography. Today it seems morbid, but, maybe, then, when a photo was so much cheaper than a carriage or train ride, it was a way to reach out to far-away relatives to say, “You see, we treated Uncle Friederich well. Isn’t it sad. Look at this and you can cry with us.”
Our generation, however, was raised on emotion and emotional processing. For us, it wouldn’t just be about the beauty of the floral arrangement shown in Uncle Friederich’s wake photo, it would be about who Uncle Friederich was – was his father an alcoholic, did he beat his wife or keep a young farmhand on the side. Was he kind to poor people, or weep when his favorite dog died. So it’s fitting, especially now, that the Greatest Generation went on to raise the Largest Generation, for now we all have each other, with whom we can talk about all this family drama.
My fear, though, is that all this sharing is just a prelude. Another 10 years or so, and the parents will be gone, but we’ll have all this built-up medical awareness and a range of conversational habits directed toward aging and dying. Oy. While the children of the next generation – now adults on their own right – got to know me and others of my generation through our memories of seeing Janis at the Filmore West (not me, so much) and our appreciation of irony in art (really, me, so much), they’ll end up remembering us for our ability to endlessly parse the difference between beta blockers and statins. And, given the demographics, there will be a lot more of us than there will be of them. To whom shall they turn for a little bit of levity in life?
So, to my fellow baby boomers, I suggest we work harder on the humor and lighten up on the drama. For example, Consider taking on the weekly ritual of filling your parent’s pillbox during cocktail hour. I did so tonight and cracked myself up at the irony of slotting drugs into daily compartments between gimlet swigs: Metaprolol for him, Ketel One for me, Diovan for him, Ketel One for me, Proscar for him, Ketel One for me, etc., etc., etc. And when your parent suggests a final trip around the country – as Dad did tonight – to visit family and friends, encourage it as an adventure, even if – in your heart – the mere idea terrifies. Because, as this generation – for good or ill – has been a role model for us, so we should be a role model for those that follow – do we want to be looked after with pity or awe?
And, just as important, our actions in helping our parents approach such difficult times could help us once we’re lucky enough to reach such advanced age ourselves. If we can model humor and adventure to our own aging parents, then, just perhaps, we can approach the experience with the same upbeat attitude, ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I plan to still be smiling, behind the wheel of that just-perfect Prius or (God forbid) Mercury Marquis, as I make my own farewell tour visiting those whom I hold dear.