Lifelines

The truth about life and love.

The problems of the elderly are frequently serious but seldom interesting.

Relinquish dignity last.

     Fact: in the United States there are now thirty-five million people over the age of sixty-five, 13 percent of the population. Their numbers are increasing and, with the reluctant help of the baby boom generation, there will be seventy million elderly by 2030.
      For obvious reasons, I've been paying more attention to the aging process lately. As a psychiatrist, I see a select sample of the elderly, but I also have the experience of friends and contemporaries to draw upon. It's not, in general, an attractive prospect.
One of the risks we run throughout life is that of becoming a cultural cliché. We can do this at any age: the rebellious teen, the naïve newlywed, the acquisitive yuppie, the overburdened parent, the cautious mid-lifer, the indolent retiree. But it is in the final stage of life that we are most at risk of surrendering to the depredations of time and loss and becoming the irrelevant aged whom we pitied in our youth.
      The passing of the years strips us of many of the pretenses with which we disguise our true selves. Of all that we fear, it is infirmity and death that terrify us the most. The billions of dollars spent on cosmetics, reconstructive surgery, and an absurd collection of "food supplements" bear testimony to our futile attempts to expunge the visible evidence of our mortality. What we need, of course, is the courage to face (so to speak) what we have become: old.
      Marginalized by society, tolerated by adult children who can bear our company only in small doses, the elderly tend to live with others who also have more leisure than imagination. When jobs and family responsibilities are at an end, we run the risk of becoming extraneous, both to society and to ourselves.
      This, I think, is why the old have such a deserved reputation as complainers. If we become preoccupied with our physical selves when we are young we are thought of as hypochondriacs. When we think (and speak) primarily of our aches when we are old, we are just bad company. I frequently encounter adult children who dread conversations with their parents simply because they know they will be subject to a litany of infirmities that they have already heard many times before. Nothing could be less interesting, even in someone we love, than a repetitious recitation of ailments that are beyond the reach of both medical science and the trapped listener. If boring others is not enough, what happens when we start to bore ourselves?
      I see one middle-aged woman who has grown so tired of listening to complaints and unsolicited advice from her mother that when they have a phone conversation, she holds the receiver at arm's length so that she can hear the sound of her mother's voice but can't quite make out the words. When her mother stops talking, the woman says, "Yes, Mom," into the receiver and holds it out again as her mother goes on. And on. And on. I have actually recommended this technique to some desperate adult children whose conversations with their parents are devoid of what is usually meant by the word communication.
      As we age and our physical world shrinks, often so does our range of enthusiasms. It is amazing to me, for example, how few older people I encounter who are computer literate. In one survey of people over sixty-five, only 31 percent had ever been online, even to send and receive email. (The corresponding figure for the next generation of elderly, now fifty to sixty-five, was 70 percent.) To have television as one's primary window on the world is almost unbearably sad.
Herewith are a few suggestions for those whose wishes for longevity have been granted:
     1. Stop complaining. A couple of generations earlier, you would have been dead for ten years.
     2. If you don't have an activity in your life that causes you to lose track of time, you need to find something.
     3. If you go to the doctors more than 10 times per year and don't have a terminal illness, get a new hobby.
     4. It's true that they haven't written any good music for thirty years. Neither your children nor your grandchildren want to hear about it.
     5. If anyone wants to know what life was like when you were their age, they'll ask.
     6. Don't worry about avoiding temptation. As you grow older, it will avoid you.
     7. Relinquish dignity last.

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Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

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