I’ve been reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. She really nails old age – in a realistic and positive way. She was 60 in 2004 when the book was first published, neither old nor young.
The narrator, a minister named John Ames, is in his late 70’s writing a letter to his young son, whom he knows he won’t get to see grow up. John has a bad heart. He’s reviewing his past for his son and wondering what to expect in the next stage of existence. He believes in heaven but freely admits he doesn’t know what it will be like.
I’m older than John Ames. Like him, I love the beauty and wonder of this world. Though I’m in good health I’m aware, like him, of life’s fragility. My existential question is different from John’s. It’s this: How can I live in the present moment in a way that feels loving to others, that makes the world better for my having been here, and pleases God?
Another way of asking the question is, “What am I called to now?” Covid has shut many doors, but others are opening:
–The imminent birth of a great-grandson, my first male descendant after nine girls. The last male born on my side of the family was my father in 1907. This is a BIG event!
–Supporting (with money and mentoring) a college student whose parents came from Africa. I love getting to know her better.
–An invitation to run one or two workshops at a regional denominational church conference in October.
–Finding a new way to use some wonderful interviews I did with people who’ve reinvented themselves in ways that contribute to the lives of others. The book I planned didn’t find a publisher, but the raw material is rich.
— With my husband Jim, using our life experiences to accompany patients and their families as hospice-volunteer “caring companions” to those who request one. Some will be solo agers, homeless people, or prisoners. We’ve been accepted and are waiting for Covid to lift so we can begin.
Old age is not a time to quit. It can be a time of growth. I can’t do everything, but I can do something meaningful. And loving.
At whatever age you are right now, what is your call?
“Is there such a thing as psychic exhaustion?” a friend I’ll call Shelley asks. She’s caring for a husband who suffered a stroke. He keeps falling. He’s depressed and angry. She’s having to do all the work they both once did. She sleeps as fitfully as a new mom, listening for him to try to get up, so she can rush to help before he falls again.
His condition is not improving.
Shelley’s love and loyalty are real. So is her pain. Dwindling hope takes a toll, emotionally and spiritually. Resentment creeps in. Then she feels guilty.
I understand. I loved my parents and took care of Dad until he died. I loved my husband Jerry deeply for 56 years. I don’t regret a single day of caring for him at home. But when he passed after two years of increasingly demanding needs, I wondered if there was such a thing as Caregiver PTSD.
Sure enough, it’s a real thing. Read about it here. Six years later I still have flashbacks and bad dreams.
Other friends have borne far more than I. One cares for a husband who lost both legs to amputation after a series of strokes and infections. He can’t sit up, talk, or feed himself. Three people I know tended to spouses with ALS.
Suggestions are plentiful but often unhelpful:
“Make time for yourself.” Thanks. Now tell me how.
“Get outside help.” Good idea, if you can afford the $25 an hour it’s likely to cost, with a four-hour daily minimum. Night shifts (so you can sleep) are more.
“Use your long-term care insurance.” If you have it (We did). But the first 90 days were on us. Unpaid service doesn’t count. Jerry died in the final week of his 90 days, so we paid a lot and never collected a penny.
“Seek help from family members.” This would be a natural, but it assumes family members are willing or able to help. Either because of geography or lack of desire, they may be scarce.
“Can’t you use assisted living?” In some areas the costs exceed $100,000 a year. Medicare doesn’t cover. Medicaid will pay after patients completely impoverish themselves by private pay care. And… the patient may resist leaving home.
What does help:
A support group led by a trained counselor. I attended one at Iona Senior Center in Washington, DC. for caregivers and patients with dementia. After an icebreaker together, the caregivers went with one counselor, the patients with another. My group included spouses and adult children caring for aging parents. People felt safe to let it all hang out – the darkness and the light. You felt heard and understood. Not judged.
A new story. My mother had Alzheimers and my Dad, who cared for her, had 4th stage prostate cancer. When he fell and I had to fly to Florida, Jerry and I insisted they move in with us. My American friends said things like, “Are you sure you want to do that? Maybe you could rent them an apartment nearby?”
But my Latina and Ethiopian friends all said, “Oh, you’re so lucky! I wish I could do that!” Some shed tears. It helped me see how I was culturally biased toward rugged individualism. I told myself a new story.
Community. Let friends, neighbors, people in groups you belong to know your needs when they ask. Caregiving can be lonely and hard. This is not the place for a stiff upper lip. People often really want to help. Let them.
Faith, if you have it. “Jeanine,” an Iona group member who attends daily mass, said, “I’m peaceful. This is what God has called me to right now.” Margaret Hodge, an 80-something evangelical Christian in Oklahoma and an ALS spouse, was preparing her husband’s funeral when she received word that her grandson was struck by a train and was in a vegetative state. As soon as the funeral ended she drove to Tennessee to help with his care. Back home, she has opened her home to children, college students, and foreign young people. Giving herself is part of her faith.
I invite your stories of surviving caregiving and dealing with its inevitable aftermath.
Give Back, No. Give, Yes.
I know I sound like a curmudgeon. At 84, I’m guess I’m entitled. But here’s my beef with what’s become an everyday expression for too many people. Put another way: Here’s something I fail to understand:
Why in heaven’s name do people say, “I want to give back?” Give back? For what? Is the act of “giving” really the other half of a deal, a bargain, an exchange, a barter, a quo for the quid?
Giving in its true sense is an act in and of itself of sharing, donating, offering, providing without any strings. It’s a C O N T R I B U T I O N.
How did we and our language get so entangled with this idea of “giving back?” How did we get locked into this crazy notion of a giving as reciprocity for something? Can’t we just give without strings?
Or is our usage on auto-pilot? Are we just programmed to say “give back” without even thinking of what that term means?
Generosity is, I believe, fundamental to our species. It is a natural act. Kids who haven’t been conditioned for selfishness are natural givers. For them, sharing is not a right, or an obligation. It’s something intrinsic to their beings. Until, it isn’t. Until it’s seen as fulfilling one’s end of an exchange.
The next time you’re about to intone “I want to give back,” try: “I want to contribute” instead. Feel how more meaningful these words are. How the words release you from feeling you owe someone or some group something. How the word “contribute” frees you to act from your essence, from your core, and not because society expects this of you. Instead, it’s something you expect from yourself. Because it’s good.
Reading “Catcher in the Rye” at Eighty
I belong to a book club where most members are over 50. Someone suggested we re-read a classic that we’d read as a young person, to see how our view of it has changed. We chose Catcher in the Rye. It has been an interesting journey, starting and ending with fragility.
When I first met Holden Caulfield, I was a college freshman. I thought he was a potty-mouthed loser. He flunked out of one fancy private school after another. Only sixteen, he smoked and drank and tried to pass for an adult. He had no friends his own age. I didn’t like him and couldn’t figure out why on earth my professor assigned this reading.
Now I know. Holden’s cursing, which then shocked me, now seems tame. I now notice his parents are physically and emotionally distanced. They don’t mind his smoking and drinking because it’s a firm part of their lifestyle and, if anything, they seem to encourage it.
Now I understand the tough-guy language is a screen to hide Holden’s sensitivity and vulnerability. (Do tattoos and piercings serve that purpose today?)
Then, I thought he disliked everyone else, calling them “phonies.” Now I recognize he has an uncanny knack of seeing another’s “false self,” but simultaneously piercing through it with compassion to the pain it’s designed to hide.
Holden has more trouble seeing his own inner kindness and courage. He believes he’s a coward because he doesn’t like to fight. But in fact he stands up to bullies even when he takes a beating for it. He defends acne-covered misfit Ackly. He confronts his popular, sophisticated roommate, Stradlater, who brags about seducing a girl Holden admires. He dances with a pretty “older” woman who is graceful, but then also invites her clumsy, unattractive friends to dance so they won’t feel left out.
Holden seems to be completely himself only when with his ten-year-old sister Phoebe.
When I was young, I’d have said this book was about a teenage boy killing time for a couple of days on his own in New York, to avoid going home and confronting his disappointed parents who would learn he’s been expelled. I don’t recall noticing that he seems to be telling his story to a therapist in an institution. This doesn’t become explicit until the very end, although there are strong hints of depression and maybe even suicidal thoughts. As the story ends, Holden expects to return home soon and then, it’s implied, to another private school.
Now I understand why Catcher in the Rye continues to be assigned to young people and to sell millions of copies. But it may be more appropriate for readers with a lifetime of experience. It’s really about our universal longing for human connections – and how our egos and defenses get in the way.
The Solidarity of Grief and Grace
Like many of my fellow Americans, I’ve been deeply moved this month by so many stories and photos and interviews recalling the terrorist attacks on our country twenty years ago. But perhaps what moved me most – to my own surprise and wonder – was the speech by former President George W. Bush at Shanksville, Pennsylvania. You can read it here.
He praised the courage of passengers and crew on Flight 93, who brought the hijacked airplane down, losing their own lives but saving the terrorists’ probable intended target, the United States Capitol.
President Bush was eloquent. His language was often lyrical, always tough and true. “The world was loud with carnage and sirens, and then quiet with missing voices that would never be heard again.” He spoke of horror – “the audacity of evil” – and “the solidarity of grief and grace” rising to face “the brute randomness of death.”
Other speakers praised the bravery of first responders who died saving people in the towers. The day was thick with grief – we heard stories of widows and their children who grew up without a father. Survivors still wonder why they escaped and friends were lost. But no one else I heard dared to address the spiritual challenges raised by so much pain. President Bush did.
He acknowledged there is no simple explanation for unearned suffering. “All that many could hear was God’s terrible silence.” He didn’t offer an explanation or solution. Then this: “But comfort can come from a different sort of knowledge. After wandering long and lost in the dark, many have found they were actually walking, step by step, toward grace.”
A cynic could say, “He has a good speech writer.” Yes, but Bush has a reputation for telling his speechwriters what he wants to say. These remarks seem too personal, vulnerable even, not to have come from the speaker’s own tough conversation with his Maker. And I suspect it’s still going on.
Reentry and Reinvention
“Reentry” has become shorthand for life after Covid. We thought everything would return to 2019-style normal with the arrival of the vaccine. Schools would reopen. We could root for our favorite sports teams – in person. We could see movies in a real theater instead of the living room couch. Broadway lights would be relit. We could eat in restaurants again, shop in stores without fear. We could worship together again and attend large gatherings like weddings and funerals.
As expected, everything did begin to open up. But then the Delta variant struck, and once again hospitals are overwhelmed, unvaccinated people are dying, and breakthrough infections are slowing reentry down. Masks are back, at least for indoor functions.
And it’s not just Covid. Since 2019 phrases like “Black lives matter” and “white privilege” entered the lexicon. Climate change is torching our forests, flooding cities, and shredding houses, schools, and churches with tornados that just keep coming. Hurricanes, droughts, and melting icebergs are creating massive migrations of human refugees.
Nobody feels safe. Almost daily we have to reinvent how we worship, earn, learn, get medical care, and live in peace with neighbors who don’t look like us. “Reentry” is forcing us to also reinvent our individual lives.
You can wear a lot of hats by the time you reach my age. I’d been a stay-at-home mom fourteen years when I became a law student at age thirty-six. I was a lawyer at forty, then a federal tax judge for sixteen years. While I was on the bench my late husband Jerry and I were ordained and both served – at separate times – as volunteer co-pastors of a small multicultural faith community in Washington, DC. When I retired from the court in 2002 I became a mediator and nonprofit organizer.
These identities were all primarily chosen.
But our agency is limited by the seeming randomness of life. Some reinventions are thrust on us by life events. Jerry chose to finish college and join the U.S. Secret Service. But he became a national hero when he saved President Reagan’s life on March 30, 1981. This is an example of reinvention as improv.
When Jerry died in 2015 I became a widow. My new identity was neither chosen nor unexpected. Life events – like retirement or sickness or family tragedies – happen that we can’t control. These reinventions are what I call necessities.
Now it seems to me that’s where current events have brought us. To a smaller or greater degree, we are all reinventing ourselves in response to the historical changes at play now, whether we think of them as necessities or improv. The question is to what extent will we choose to direct the flow of our lives, even if we can’t choose the circumstances?
The Bell Curve of Sympathy
What happens when friends, acquaintances, just about anyone you know learns you’re sick? Or that a family member has died? Or another tragedy has struck?
If you’re like most recipients of others’ concern, phones ring, get well and/or sympathy cards arrive, and in some cases you’re deluged with an outpouring of heartfelt support, along with expressions of prayers and thoughts.
Offers of foods, transportation, whatever, can be overwhelming. In some cases there is a cascade of casseroles.
What happens a few weeks later? “Thoughts and prayers” fade to radio silence. Written expressions of sympathy slow to a trickle and then to dry up.
Life returns to normal. The survivor of a loved one’s death or of a serious illness is expected to “be over it.”
In the media this is called “the news hole.” As soon as one momentous event is overshadowed by a newer one, the first drops out of sight into the “news hole.”
Same with sympathy. Its half-life is a few weeks at best. Then zap! It’s disappeared.
But what if the survivor or the patient doesn’t recover? What if the loss is so great it has permanently scarred the survivor? Or a patient’s illness worsens, or is terminal? What then?
The sympathy curve has completed its cycle. Obligatory expressions of concern may crop up if we happen to physically encounter the survivor or the patient. Otherwise, nothing.
Maybe it behooves us to keep the survivor in our thoughts and prayers a little longer. Continue offers of support. Don’t take the survivor’s bravado at face value, but genuinely CHECK IN.
Some people don’t recover. Their illness persists. Or the loss of a loved one is a permanent wound, a crippling psychological handicap, or morphs into a chronic (even terminal) condition.
Let’s stop taking “she’ll-get-over-it-itus” for granted.
Check in. Make that call. Send that text. Be present.
When a new book, Love After 50, launched on July 13, 2021 it had my full attention. After all, I was in it. The author, Francine Russo, interviewed Jim and me after learning of our marriage just before we turned 80.
This book is full of practical wisdom, born of the twice-widowed author’s two marriages and current long-term partnership, as well as true stories of many other couples she interviewed.
Jim and I knew each other nearly fifty years when we married in 2017, so I hadn’t needed to explore online dating sites and protocol to find a trustworthy mate. Still, I found those chapters fun to read. But what really engaged me about the book were the communication tips throughout.
As a journalist, Russo understands the impact of words. She identifies sensitive topics that may/will come up and offers clear model conversations. What should you talk about (and avoid) on a first date? (Hint: Don’t talk about your former spouse.)
What if you meet for coffee, and you know right away you’re not interested? If he asks to see you again, Russo suggests saying, in a kindly manner, “I’ve enjoyed meeting you, but the chemistry doesn’t feel right for a romantic relationship.” If he insists he wants to be a “friend,” Russo advises, “That’s never worked for me, I’m afraid.” (p. 107)
Russo says to be clear, firm, and as kind as possible. In her opinion, “ghosting” (just disappearing and not returning calls with no explanation) isn’t fair.
If the date is going so badly that you don’t want to finish your coffee, she advises, just look at your watch and say, “Oh, I’m afraid I have to go now.”
Those are the easy conversations. Some are much more sensitive.
For instance, if you’ve begun to date, you really like each other, and it seems like sex is on the horizon – how do you suggest you both get tested for STDs? Even tougher, what if you know you have one? How and when do you reveal it? (You MUST reveal it before you have sex.)
What if you’ve dated for several months, and now you’re sure it’s not right? She gives examples of four things you can say – without criticizing the partner. You know your partner will be hurt, so you have to summon courage. “Say kindly but firmly whatever your truth is.” She gives examples.
Russo also gives tips on how to accept rejection if you’re the one with unrequited love.
A chapter on senior sexuality is encouraging. That topic also requires sensitive talks, too.
There will be necessary conversations about other topics: where you will live, how you’ll handle money, relationships with each other’s children. How do you tell your own children there’s a new person in your life, when they may still be grieving a lost parent? What are each other’s caregiving expectations?
When Sig and I began Tough Conversations and wrote our book, Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Family As Your Parents Age, we focused on intergenerational talk between aging parents and their adult kids. Love After 50, on the other hand, describes conversations within the same generation – that of the older parents.
The circumstances differ but the principles are the same: listen generously to understand the other, and share your own truth with clarity and kindness.
For more takes on the book, see the following (very different) articles:
Older Singles Have Found a New Way to Partner Up: Living Apart
Pivoting for Good: Three Who Made a Difference
On a single day, May 31, 2021, The Washington Post carried obituaries of three very different men. They probably never met, but their lives had something very important in common.
As adults, each had made a life-changing shift in the path he was taking. And that shift redounded to improving the world.
Robert L. Smith, Educator
Robert L. Smith made decisions that changed the lives of countless thousands of young people, thousands in person, more from a distance. He died on May 24, 2021.
Robert’s family were Quakers, a faith he deeply embraced as a young person. He was attending Harvard College when World War II broke out.
As a Quaker, Robert was expected to be a conscientious objector. It grieved him as a Quaker, but he was convinced that Hitler was so evil it was morally imperative to fight the Nazis. He fought in active combat, including the bloody Battle of the Bulge.
Back home, in 1949 Robert graduated Berkeley and earned a Master’s degree in English at Columbia in 1952. He eventually became a dean at Columbia, but he never stopped being a Quaker. In 1965, after reaching the highest levels in academia, he pivoted to a downward path. For the next thirteen years, from 1965-1978 Robert served as headmaster of a Quaker school (Sidwell Friends) in Washington, DC.
He influenced the children of Presidents Nixon, Clinton, and Obama. He increased the number of Black and Jewish students. He could personally call all 1000 students, from kindergarten to graduating seniors, by name. He led children to Quaker values of simplicity, humility, and peace making. Graduates of Sidwell have taken their places as leaders in every area of United States life.
After thirteen years at Sidwell, Robert pivoted again. He enlarged his quiet circle of service to become an adviser to Congress and the Executive Director of the Council for American Private Education which, according to The Washington Post, is a coalition of more than 33,000 elementary and secondary schools. He influenced the education of all the students who attended them.
After 61 years of marriage, Robert’s wife Eliza preceded him in death. When he passed on May 24, 2021, he left three children and eight grandchildren. But the number of children he influenced for good can only be counted by God.
Paul J. Hanly Jr., Litigator
Paul J. Hanly, Jr. grew up exposed to seeing both sides of the law up close. He was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, where his father worked for a time as a prison warden before he became a hospital administrator.
But obituary author Emily Langer writes, “his maternal grandfather, John V. Kenney, was mayor of Jersey City and a local political power broker who served time in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges of income tax evasion.”
Paul studied philosophy at Cornell and Cambridge in England. His apparent attempt to understand his background then led him to Georgetown Law School, where he graduated in 1979. [Full disclosure: I graduated there in 1977 so we’d have been contemporaries, but I do not remember him.]
According to Langer, Paul began his legal career in 1979 defending corporations accused of harming the public. For instance, he represented one of the world’s largest asbestos companies. He was very successful, highly regarded, and I imagine well paid in this role for nearly 22 years.
But on September 11, 2001 everything changed. The attack on our country, according to his son, inspired him to practice law as “a public service.”
Hanley changed sides. Here’s how Langer described the pivot:
— He helped represent hundreds of victims and families in lawsuits related to the attacks.
— He helped win a $60 million settlement for victims of alleged sex abuse at a school in Haiti.
— He represented plaintiffs sickened by defective drugs and medical devices.
But Paul’s service to victims was just getting started. By the time he died Paul was best known for representing victims of opioid addiction throughout the country. These drugs, according to The Washington Post had already resulted in more than 500,000 deaths. Beginning in the early 2000’s and continuing to his death on May 22, 2021 from thyroid cancer, Paul Haney’s single-minded drive was to win justice for opioid addicts.
Beginning in 2007 he and a law partner, Jane Conroy, won a settlement of $75 million from Purdue Pharma on behalf of 5000 clients addicted to OxyContin.
He kept going, building cases and winning settlements. In 2018 he and two others were appointed co-lead counsel in multidistrict litigation against opioid producers throughout the country. In 2019 they reached a $325 million settlement in two counties in Ohio.
Paul Hanley’s work will continue. His team is on a crusade to eradicate opioid addiction. Multidistrict lawsuits are pending throughout the United States. According to Jane Conroy the work involves “thousands of cities, counties and tribes” seeking redress.
Paul’s life path took several twists and turns. It began with a search for meaning through philosophy (perhaps inspired by trying to understand family members he loved), then to personal success, and finally, inspired by a terrorist attack, to a commitment to serving those who could not speak for themselves. One imagines that was where he found his truest self and deepest satisfaction.
B. J. Thomas, Singer-Songwriter
I’m embarrassed to confess I didn’t recognize the name. I should have. I would certainly recognize “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” the song BJ Thomas made famous on the sound track of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” He died on May 29, 2021 from lung cancer.
As a singer, BJ was hard to pin down. He grew up listening with his father to country favorites, Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb—music that seemed to make his father happy. BJ’s own music would also be influenced by “gospel, soul, pop, and early rock music by Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard,” according to Washington Post writer Harrison Smith.
This Texas boy started performing in his early teens with a band called The Triumphs. At the age of 23 he struck it big when his single, a version of Hank Williams’ cover, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” rose to No. 8 on Billboard. He said he wrote the song for his father.
Unfortunately, Dad’s example had a dark side: he was an alcoholic. The boy too started drinking heavily and using drugs in his teens.
In his twenties he married Gloria Richardson, whom he loved. But he had become addicted to Valium and was using $3000 worth of cocaine every week. He overdosed several times. He claimed he once was pronounced dead but was revived. His marriage failed.
In 1975 his life was in the toilet. He wanted his wife back, and turned around. He became a Christian and got sober. He and his wife reunited and had three daughters together. He’d regained the self-respect lost in his childhood and was determined to pass it on to his family.
Two years later BJ made his last Top 40 hit, “Don’t Worry Baby” and then began to devote himself entirely to gospel music. Out of seven Grammy nominations for best inspirational performance, he won four, with a fifth for best gospel performance. Although he still sprinkled in some old pop and country hits in concerts, gospel was the only music he recorded from that time on.
BJ had found his purpose in life. He said, “I want my music to have a positive effect on people. When I perform live I hope the audience will leave with their heads lifted up.”
By pivoting for good, this man found his deepest calling.