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.
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.”
This 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. Her 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.”