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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

The Dismantling of Lives: Coming Through for Someone Else

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"It’s a prime time of my life, and I basically gave it away."

Julie Winokur uprooted her husband Ed Kashi and two children from San Francisco, California to New Jersey to take care of Herbie, her 83-year-old father with dementia. This film is an intimate portrait of a family who is “doing the right thing” but are struggling with the demands of caregiving and managing daily lives of work and school.

Julie Winokur with Father at HospitalYou witness the love and the anguish of a multi-generational household making things work; it seems like the mental health of all, especially Julie, are in peril. The stakes are high, but so are the consequences if they chose a different course.

Although “The Sandwich Generation” primarily focuses on the voices of the caregivers, the most agonizing and heartbreaking part of the film comes at about the seven-minute mark. In this scene, a deconstruction crew is cleaning out Herbie’s home that he’s lived in for more than 40 years. Glass is crashing, boxes of his personal items are being heaved into a dumpster, and he’s left standing in his garage holding an old set of golf clubs he doesn’t want to let go. We never really get to know the man at the core of this picture. He’s discussed, he’s photographed, he’s cared for, he even sings a little at the end, but he remains on the periphery in a sense. And this scene grabs the onlooker and shakes us.

Looking for an image that could capture the depth of this week’s show on the "far shore of aging" resulted in this complicated portrait on the spectrum of caregiving from MediaStorm. But it also introduced me to an incredible series of photographs by Ed Kashi titled "Aging in America." Eight years later, it’s more important now than ever.

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The Poignant Story of Caring for the Fragile

by Krista Tippett, host

Lately, I’ve become intensely aware of the way age is changing. Fifty doesn’t mean what it once did, and neither does 90. There is a profound shift in our thinking about the span of our lives, with dramatic, practical implications. And like so much of the change in the world now, this is happening faster than we can process it in real time.

Associations and expectations about “youth,” “middle age,” and “old age” that held for generations have simply fallen away. Age has become a far more fluid thing, relative from life to life. This is fascinating.

And like all significant progress, this has an upside and a downside. Acting and feeling younger longer is a kind of affirmation of an American inclination to see ourselves as self-made and forever beating the odds. We celebrate the 70-year-old triathlete, the 80-year-old tennis player. I’m part of this too.

Estelle Gross

As I approached 50, I took up a serious yoga practice and can honestly say that I have never been stronger than I am now. But, in more reflective moments, I know that I also want to embrace the softness, the peace with imperfection, and the paradoxical possibility of gaining from loss that comes naturally in this time of life. I know that there is a fine line between denial and opening to age with wisdom and grace.

Jane Gross has thought about these things for years, as a human being and a journalist, and as creator of The New Old Age blog at The New York Times. This popular blog grew out of her experiences on the “far shore of caregiving,” at the far reaches of her mother Estelle’s old age. As Estelle began a steep but incremental decline after her mid-80s, she described the modern change of aging more darkly: “We live too long, and die too slowly.”

Beyond the races we can still run, the vacations we can take, and the new careers we can begin, there is, as Jane Gross puts it, an in-between time that is new in human experience — a period that may span decades, she says bluntly, “between fine and dead.”

The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua HeschelThis conversation is full of simple, hard truths stated clearly. It is an experience of how the naming of hard truths can in itself bring relief. The beginning of wisdom, after all, is facing reality. One statistically borne reality is that even our 21st-century bodies start to fail by our mid-80s, if cancer hasn’t suddenly stopped them in what we now consider the prime of life of 50 or 60.

Jane Gross’s story, and that of her mother, is a story of our time. After a long vigorous, independent life, and a thriving widowhood, “she was fine and then all of a sudden in a hundred small ways, none of which were going to kill her, not fine.” It was a roller coaster ride of debilitation, illness, decline, and panic with no end in sight.

Here again, her honesty is refreshing. She did not have a close relationship with her mother. She did not, she confesses, “race to the loving caregiver’s role with an open heart.” Like many, many people, she at first only accepted that she was caught between a rock and a hard place. She could buckle up or bolt, and the latter was not acceptable. In the end, after much muddling and many mistakes she says, it yielded unexpected healing. It became an occasion for family repair.

Some of her most important pointers are also the simplest. The elderly, as she’s experienced it, want to have conversations about this before their children are comfortable. Meet your parents there, she says. Talk, and listen, early. And this: every piece of this complex chapter of life doesn’t need every sibling to play every role. Figure out what each of you is best at and forgive yourselves and each other for not rising equally to every challenge.

I’ll close here as we close the show, with a passage from Jane Gross’s book, A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves. A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Aging Parents and Ourselves by Jane GrossHer memoir is full of practical advice. It is a dispassionate look at an ordinary piece of life that, like death, we are reluctant to look full in the face. It is a chronicle of redemption that emerges in spite and because of muddle and mistakes. But isn’t all of life really like that?

"I keep saying that this experience can become something other than desperate and bleak, if you let it. It really is a choice. We all know grown children who have bolted when the moment arrived. But imagining running away doesn’t make you a bad person. I fantasized, usually in the hypnagogic space between sleeping and waking, facing another day of ignorance and exhaustion, about pointing the car west and driving, driving, driving. I’m glad that I didn’t, because instead I learned what I was made of; I found my better self. I found my mother. I found my brother. But all of that came later.”
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Twitterscript of Jane Gross, a “Dear Abby” of Caregiving

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Krista brought Jane Gross to our attention at our weekly Monday staff meeting as someone who knows aging intimately from the “far shore of caregiving.”

This Pulitzer-nominated journalist developed her expertise on caregiving and aging not just vocationally, but through living this experience with her elderly mother in her final years.

She started The New Old Age blog for The New York Times and shared her most joyful moments and unexpected insights from role reversals of “becoming my mother’s mother” to learning how to collaborate with her adult sibling. She also has a book called A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves.

Putting words around end-of-life issues is such a difficult task that, even in our tweets, it became difficult to substitute the words “death,” “dying,” or “aging”  literally when she used demonstratives like “this” and “that” to represent those ideas in conversation.

We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:

  1. @Janegross settling in at the mic as Krista begins her interview! 15 Jun
  2. "I don’t even remember SEEING old people when I was growing up." -author Jane Gross 15 Jun
  3. "Very few people tell you along the way that just because you CAN fix X or Y doesn’t mean that you should." -Jane Gross 15 Jun
  4. "My mother and I had a difficult relationship. I didn’t race to the loving caregiver’s role with an open heart." -author Jane Gross 15 Jun
  5. "It kicks up all the dust of childhood, everyone becomes who they were when they were 10." -Jane Gross on the stress of caregiving 15 Jun
  6. "(My brother and I) thought the faster we moved, the faster we could get back to what our lives were like before." -Jane Gross 15 Jun
  7. "Most of us are more afraid of the process (of dying) than the fact." -author Jane Gross 15 Jun
  8. "The idea of how to get through this by yourself makes my hair stand up." -Jane Gross 15 Jun 
  9. "It’s pretty likely gonna be a friend (to take care of me at the end of my life)." -Jane Gross 15 Jun
  10. "My only personal solution to this is to be very conservative on the financial side. I don’t have children to pick up the slack."-J.G. 15 Jun
  11. "I’m not sure it’s as bad when it actually happens than to watch it happen." -Jane Gross on aging. 15 Jun
  12. "Rather than squeeze your eyes shut, you decide that there’s something interesting about it in the kind of spiritual life cycle sense."-JG 15 Jun
  13. "One of the great gifts of being a journalist is you get to poke around at ‘these’ things before they’re your things."-Jane Gross 15 Jun
  14. "I have seen what courage can be when there is no hope." -May Sarton in Jane Gross’s "Bittersweet Season" 15 Jun
  15. "You find out what you’re made of. If there’s any advantage to having a long slow dying its the time to get things right."-Jane Gross 15 Jun

Photo by Michael Lionstar.

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