by Roxanne Tellier
When did people start ending every conversation with “be safe. Keep yourself safe”? Am I the only one that wonders when it was decided that we are living in a time of war or zombie attacks? And why is it so incredibly sad to know that the enemy we’re being cautioned against is a disease too often spread to us by our own loved ones and ‘friends’?
The other day I suddenly thought about Gary ‘17’ Webb. For a few moments I wondered how he was doing, and what clubs he was monitoring for his webpage. And then I remembered that he’d passed in December of 2020 – not from COVID, but from another health issue.
It got me thinking about the sadly large number of friends and acquaintances that we’ve lost during this time. It’s an extensive list, and it continues to grow, from the pandemic, but also from the complications of health care in a time of ‘plague.’ Without funerals, and often with memorials and tributes put on hold indefinitely, how many of the dead will fade from our thoughts in the coming years? Humans need to gather to mourn; COVID took that away from us.
We lost so many in our music/entertainment community over the last two years. And countless more in other fields and endeavors. Sometime in the future, someone will ask you when one of these luminaries passed, and you won’t remember, lost in the flood of the names of the famous and infamous whose leaving went almost unnoticed in the sheer volume of deaths recorded.
Humans are funny creatures. Of all of the living species, we are likely the only species that understands that we are finite beings. We are born, we live our lives, and at some point, we die. It’s the natural order of things; we see it in all of the living beings around us, in nature, in the seasons. We know without a doubt that we are finite. But most of us choose to pretend that we are not.
Society and civilization depend on the collective mind believing that there is a productive and better future to come. It’s our gamble. It’s why we buy insurance. There’d be no economic incentive to build cities or empires if we didn’t believe that our hard work and sacrifices wouldn’t ultimately pay off, for us, and for our heirs. We want a future; we can’t anticipate a time when there won’t be one for us.
I recently read that a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the most productive age in human life is between 60-70 years of age. The second most productive stage of the human being is from 70 to 80 years of age. The third. most productive stage is from 50 to 60 years of age.
That means that the best years of your life are between 60 and 80 years of age, and that, at age 60, you reach the TOP of your potential and this continues into your 80s.
And yet, because of our submerged, unvoiced fear of aging and death, birthdays after 50 are too often greeted with sadness, gifts of tonics and hemorrhoid creams, black balloons, and cards that inform us that we’ve gone “Over the Hill.”
While we may have, in our youth, invested in collectibles, antiques and art, we are now informed that not all things increase in value with age. People, it would seem, diminish in worth.
But how can that be? In some societies, elders are revered as wisdom holders, the keepers of the culture, the teachers, the mentors, replete with the wisdom of a life well spent! In an ideal world, an elder that has walked the path in their field would be actively sought after for their insights.
In our modern world, long term care facilities are often modern-day ice floes upon which we place our old and sick, so that they might drift far away, and not disturb our fast-paced lives. During COVID, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, even suggested that patriotic oldsters would gladly die to save the economy.
But failing to respect and access the accumulated knowledge and experience that many elders possess is to potentially throw away some of the most valuable assets that we possess. Ideally, our society would accept and anticipate becoming a respected elder, who is available to provide valuable insights, based on their years of experience.
Not all elders are wise, nor are they always right in their opinions. But no one is right, all the time, and even the wunderkinds don’t understand every field that exists.
There are some instances in which an elder should be discouraged from commenting, and in that, I would include technology that they have not yet encountered, understood, or conquered. It would be folly to ask, as members of the U.S. Congress did recently, that senior members, who are not fluent in current internet tech, rule on how technology will go forward in the years to come, when they will most likely not be around to live under those rules.
Each of us must respect the stages of life. We must also be aware that those coming up behind us will need the time and space to enter into the workplace and develop their own experience and wisdom. In time, their wisdom will be of use to the generation that is coming up behind them.
If we all could look forward to a beneficial aging, rather than a collective shunning, we could be more proactive in our ‘golden’ years.
It’s not a crime, or shameful, to realize how aging will affect us. While there will be a lucky few that escape the ravages of time largely unscathed, many of us already know what lies ahead, in terms of wellness and personal vulnerability.
I decided long ago that I would be honest with myself about how aging and illness would affect my life, my living quarters, and my need for independence.
A few years ago, I was contemplating the purchase of an e-scooter, something that I could use to do errands, and to maintain some independence from needing to use public transit or cadging rides from others. But the more I thought about a two wheeled scooter, the more I realized that it wouldn’t really suit my long-term needs. I needed something with room to transport groceries, or library items. I also worried about maintaining my balance on two wheels.
So, when I saw an ad for a beat-up old mobility scooter on the buy and sell board of my supermarket, I decided to go for it. It was going for much less than a scooter, new or used, and I figured it would be a good ‘first vehicle’ for me. And I was right. Learning to steer and properly drive any vehicle can be a period of trial and error, and it can sometimes turn deadly. I’ll be forever grateful that I chose to learn while I still have full use of my limbs and faculties.
Sure, it was a little embarrassing, buying into the whole mobility scooter look, but it freed me up to do my errands when I wanted, how I wanted. And that independence means a great deal to me. Had I waited until a mobility scooter was my only choice for transportation, I might not have had the flexibility to roll with the learning curve punches.
I’m under no illusions about aging. I look at my face in the mirror every day, and it’s not the face (or hair, or body) that once looked back at me. Aging is inevitable, and non-negotiable. This is where the GIGO ends; garbage in equals garbage out, and if you chose to fuel yourself with ‘garbage’ throughout your life, garbage is what you’re left with to negotiate your last years.
With that being said, it’s not only fun to soothe our egos with mementos of our glorious youths – sometimes it can be a life saver. The conceit that our past precedes us can do real damage in situations where our pasts are unknown.
When two of my doctors retired, exhausted from the restraints of COVID regulations, I was suddenly faced with entrusting my continued healthcare to a new doctor who had never known me as anyone other than the senior person they saw sitting in front of them. They don’t know my past experiences, which means that they can’t see how those experiences resonate in my choices of today.
That’s why I brought along a portfolio of photos from my youth with me to my first face-to-face encounter with my new family doctor. She’s a busy woman, and I can’t expect her to waste her time in trying to imagine where my thoughts and feelings come from. So I showed her photos of myself on stage, in community settings, with my kids and grandkids. I let her know that I’m not just a new patient that falls neatly into a geriatric box, but rather, a person who has had a full and rewarding life, that’s not ready to be sloughed aside in any form of triage, based on age.
Maybe I’m fooling myself, and those photos made no impression on her. All I could do was try and visually show her that my present visage may appear to be old and vulnerable, but my youth prepared me for a good fight to the finish.
Bette Davis was right – old age is not for sissies. Having a full, rewarding old age takes work. But consider the alternative … it ain’t pretty.