October 12th, 2006

ozarque figure

Eldering; the warning gap....

This being the U.S., we get warned about the money problems we're going to face when we're old, and we get warned about the crucial necessity to stave off the Horror Of Looking Old, and we get warned about the medications that we should -- if we want to be accepted as a real old person -- be sure to be taking regularly when we're old. But there's a glaring absence of warnings about some other features of eldering. I've already posted about two of them: the infuriating amount of tending that an elderly body requires, especially for individuals who haven't spent much time tending their bodies up to that point; and the way that the elder-perception of Time Whizzing Past makes every repeated-at-regular-intervals task -- like changing sheets -- seem to come around every half hour or so.

However, moving right along, there's something else we don't get warned about. Nobody warns you about what it's going to be like to live with a partner or spouse [hereafter "POS"] who is also growing old; nobody tells you what resources you're going to need for dealing with that situation. I think that's a gap that needs filling.

If you are greatly blessed, your POS will age magnificently, and you'll spend your old age with someone who is wise and kind and distinguished and splendid and strong and compassionate and a joy to be with; may that happen to you, and to everyone you know. Another possibility is that something medically dreadful will happen -- your POS will have a massive stroke, or get Alzheimer's, or something of that kind. In which case you'll find whole shelves of books on dealing with the problem; there'll be magazines and websites and support groups and experts galore that you can turn to for help and advice. And then there are two other alternatives...

One is that your POS ages more swiftly and more drastically than you do. You will then find yourself living with someone who is forgetful, and impatient, and irritable, and tactless, and increasingly unwilling (or unable) to carry a fair share of the load. You will find yourself living with someone who makes unwise decisions, not just once in a great while but roughly once a week. You will find yourself living with someone who says things -- often in public -- that should not be said. You will find yourself living with someone who is -- face it -- chronically irritating.

The other is that you age more swiftly and more drastically than your POS. Which means that you will be achingly aware that you are the one who is forgetful, and impatient, and irritable, and all the rest of it -- that you are the one who is letting down the side and the one who is chronically irritating. There'll be one occasion after another when you are miserably aware that your POS is trying to decide which is worse: dishonestly humoring you, or honestly fighting with you.

The chances that the two (or more) of you will age at the same rate and to the same degree are very, very slim. And we get no warning about the resources we'll need -- mostly patience and tolerance and empathy -- in order to deal with the resulting imbalance. Elders cannot be sent to their rooms, or ordered to take time-outs in a corner; elders cannot be disciplined by their POS.

It's true that you need to set aside money for your retirement. It's true that you'd be very wise to start a regular program of physical and mental exercise by the time you're thirty, so that the body and mind you take into retirement won't be hopelessly dilapidated.

But that's not enough. You also need to start a regular program that will build your reserves of patience and tolerance and empathy -- and love -- and you need to do that long before you reach the age of stiffening of the character and hardening of the attitudes.

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