You’ll forgive me for perhaps overreacting to Steven Petrow’s recent New York Times article “What I’ll Do Differently When I’m Old”; his observations struck more of a nerve than a chord. Hey, that’s me he’s talking about!
I reread his article a few times, trying to decide whether the author was writing tongue-in-check – maybe an attempt at satire – or whether he was being serious. But although he has a few funny examples, happily belittling his parents’ habits, I’m pretty sure he was being serious. He confessed that he had started to write his now long and still growing list of what he would not do when he was old when he was 50. His detailed list is based on what he has seen his parents doing that he clearly doesn’t approve of. It appears that his list is meant to become guidelines he will follow to prevent himself from making the “errors” he sees his parents making. Do many 50-year olds really do this? Is this a huge concern that I have somehow missed? The author is now 60 and, doing some basic math based on how old his father was within the past few years, his parents were of a similar age to mine, my husband’s, and our friends’ when he started his list. Wow. Do our kids have lists like this?!
I think my extreme reaction to the article was a reaction to its tone. The author speaks of his frustration at things his parents do that he clearly finds irritating, but with no hint whatsoever of understanding, respect, or empathy. On first reading the author’s reaction to what he thought his parents were doing wrong, I kept thinking of George Castanza’s interactions with his parents, although that is probably somewhat unkind. 😉
I sense that this is really about his own fear of growing old. My guess is that watching his parents cope with aging in their own ways – obviously not ways endearing to the author – scares him for himself more than for them. Some the items on his list are disappointingly superficial, like making sure to continue to dress well and using teeth whitener in old age. Fear of actually being an old person – and looking like an old person – is front of mind in this article.
For adult children who similarly view their parents’ aging as a series of embarrassing and hazardous shortcomings, perhaps I can put your minds at rest. Of course, there are many real reasons for concern for aging parents (although I didn’t hear what I would call concern in this article, just frustration); if you’re fortunate enough to have parents who live a long life, at some point they are going to succumb to a serious illness, chronic infirmity, and/or dementia. At that time, concern should certainly kick in. And there is absolutely no doubt that if you are lucky enough to have parents who live a full life, they are going to look old. They are going to have wrinkly skin and white hair, they’re going to take naps in the middle of the afternoon, and they probably aren’t going to see or hear as well as you do. To which I ask, so what?!
There are a few things you might want to keep in mind about your aging parents:
- We’ve lived lives without our children in the house far longer than we lived with them, and we’ve done pretty well on our own.
- We have come to appreciate that there is plenty to enjoy at this stage of life. Almost too much! It’s getting to this stage of life that’s the challenge.
- We are comfortable saying what we really think and are able to do (or not do) what we really want. It’s called freedom!
- We finally realize why our own aging parents didn’t keep up with fashion as much as they did when they were younger. They just didn’t care. We don’t feel the same societal pressure anymore (and we don’t have to go to work every day). We wear what we want, when we want to wear it, and for as long as we can get away with wearing it. We believe in clean but comfortable.
- We finally have the gift of time. We can exercise, travel, join social groups, learn new things, engage in creative activities, volunteer, and spend more time with friends and family. What’s not to like?
- You know what, you learn to live with the fact that the old person in the mirror is really you. You don’t need to look closely that often. The pimples and greasy hair of teenage-hood was far more angst-producing.
- When you really have to slow down, you know you’re ready. That’s just the way it is. The reality is that we have plenty of experience watching those who come before us.
- The main worry you adult children should have is that you live long enough to enjoy this special time of life. Instead of worrying about getting old, work on a healthy lifestyle now that will allow you to reach old age. That should be your goal, not writing ten years’ worth of lists about whether to wear adult diapers if needed and whether to use a walker to avoid a fall. That’s a waste of time.
In the New York Times article, the author quotes a friend as saying to him: “The important thing is to remember no matter how much we tell ourselves we won’t be like our parents, no matter how hard and fast we run in the other direction, we become them.” The author’s response was: Please, no!
My own response would be: You should be so lucky! 🙂