Dad and I went out to dinner last night to celebrate my 52nd birthday. While it might seem like going out to dinner would be a nice break from the regular meal planning/fixing/washing-up routine that makes up most of my evenings, it’s often more of a chore. First, it means I miss my beloved evening vodka gimlet. If I’m driving (and I always am, these days), then I hold myself to a single glass of wine with dinner – Dad and I went round and round over his drinking and driving too much for me to allow him the satisfaction of an “I told you so” now that I’m behind the wheel. Second, it means eating even earlier than we usually do – for some reason, though we never eat before 7 pm when dining at home, Dad starts getting really antsy by 6 pm if we’re going out for dinner. And then, finally, there’s Dad, himself, at the restaurant.
Because Dad traveled so much for his work, he became very particular about food and service over the years. That fussiness has only gotten worse as he’s gotten older. I now cringe when he orders steak, especially here on Cape Cod (even I will tell you that, to a Midwesterner, if you want good beef here… well, maybe you’d prefer the fish). There’s a 50/50 chance any beef dish he orders will be either sent back or bitched over when the server comes by for that perfunctory “And how is everything?” check-in. And if his Manhattan comes to him in a glass that hasn’t been chilled to the point of frost build-up, it will be returned to the bartender faster than you can say “straight bourbon.”
I tell these stories to my friends, and, to them, these actions are just another example of what they see as his cranky-old-guy charm. The thing is, he’s been acting this way since he was at least my age – and it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve perfected the breathing exercise required to keep my blood pressure below 163/95 when he does it. A part of the relaxation process is just gazing around the restaurant as Dad explains to the server just why his drink/steak/whatever isn’t to his liking, to separate myself from the entire experience.
So, last night, as Dad was instructing the waitress (aka, “young lady”) on proper cocktail-glass-chilling technique, I let my eyes float over the crowd, which prompted several observations. First, at 6:30 pm, it was pretty darned crowded. Then I started noticing a pattern – a whole lot of folks my age were sitting at table with a whole lot of folks Dad’s age, and many of them were dealing with their own little embarrassments. For example, there was the aging father having trouble negotiating the crowded restaurant and bar area, and another several tables over whose eyes were glazing over as his son repeated everything the server said at high volume to an equally aged mother. And seated right next to me, a woman a couple years older than me was buttering her 80-something mother’s bread because her mom was obviously having trouble with the sight and manual dexterity needed to complete this task on her own.
These observations got me thinking through the course of the rest of the meal at the irony of how isolating the caregiving experience can feel when there are obviously so many of us going through it at the same time. You must have noticed this – mention to someone who’s pushing 50 or older that you take care of an older parent, and the odds are pretty good they’ll have a story or two of their own. When you consider the demographics involved, this omnipresence becomes even more obvious.
The over-80 age group is one of the fastest growing demographic groups around the globe, these days. And those of us now taking care of them? We’re members of the largest population bubble this country’s ever experienced: the Baby Boom. So there are both a lot of old folks to take care of, and a lot of middle-age kids being called on to do that caring. This is why restaurants that 40 years ago faced an early-evening rush of kid-crammed station wagons now see their dining rooms filled with middle-age patrons buttering their elderly parents’ bread.
If you look around a bit, you’ll see this phenomenon everywhere – in the supermarket where a late-50s woman is walking a shopping cart next to a scooter-driving mom, and in the dentist’s office where that guy in his early 60s is answering the clipboard full of insurance questions for the father whose hearing and vision are both shot. As a society – myself included – we have a habit of skipping past older folks as we visually scan a space, so we also miss the presence of those a generation younger standing by their sides.
Maybe this is something to remember the next time I’m feeling like no one else could possibly understand how beaten down I feel by yet one more urinal spill to clean up or workday-interrupting specialist’s appointment to attend. And I bet a knowing smile shared with that cart-pushing daughter or clipboard-bearing son will make this connection even more real for both me and that other dutiful, aging child. There are a lot of us out there now and we’re all doing the best we can. And, while others might not recognize our presence, in recognizing each other we can help make all of our work just a little easier for a time.