By Steven Petrow
Soon after my 50th birthday, 10 years ago, I started keeping a list of “Things I will do/things I won’t do when I get old.”
It was a highly judgmental, and super secret, accounting of all the things I thought my parents were doing wrong. My dad lied chronically about taking his meds. He refused to get a hearing aid, telling others to “up their audio” (he had been a television producer). My mom smoked behind my back (she thought) until the day she was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was all too easy to call them out, and I recognized over and over just how awful it is to become feeble, sick and increasingly absent-minded, or worse.
Over the next decade I accumulated many pages of dos and don’ts, even as I fretted about exactly when I’d be old enough to start following my own advice. Recently I heard a sociologist on the radio call people in their early 60s, “the young old.” I imagine that my “young adult” nieces might consider me “old, old” already, but I don’t feel ready yet to start taking my own advice. I’m still working on building my list, not implementing it.
The entries on that list reflect my frustration of seeing the price my parents paid for their stubbornness. Take my mother’s terrifying driving, for instance. A growing number of fender benders, and worse, didn’t faze her, and she would not listen to any talk of her fading ability behind the wheel. In desperation, I reported Mom to the D.M.V. and they called her in for a road test. She failed it, and her license was revoked. It humiliated Mom, and tormented me.
Here’s how it appears on my list:
“If my driving capability is questioned, I will not reject the comment out of hand because I am afraid of losing my independence. I hope there will be self-driving cars by then. If nothing else works, I hope someone will turn me in.”
My biggest worry as I watched my parents grow old was their increasing physical frailty. Who hasn’t heard that hip fractures from falls are a leading cause of death among the elderly? I know my father had, if only because we talked about it with him ad nauseam. I pointed out the consequences of his own mother’s pride in refusing a cane or walker: At age 84, Grandma fell while riding the New York City subway alone, and that fall led over the months that followed to her death.
After literally hundreds of falls, none of which persuaded him to accept help or use a walker, Dad, at 87, finally came down hard and broke four ribs. That accident jump-started the slide that led to his death. I ask myself: Will my self-awareness triumph over my own (apparently genetic) stubbornness?
So on my list is what I told my dad time and again:
“I’ll try to remember that the best way to stay independent is to accept smaller degrees of dependence or assistance. I’ll use a walker rather than fall and break bones.”
A friend of mine put it this way: “I will use a walker so I won’t fall, even when it wrecks my outfit.” Designer walkers, anyone?
I’ll admit that vanity drives a number of my dos and don’ts. About eight years in, I wrote:
“I will not blame the family dog on my lap for my incontinence. I will choose the humiliation of wearing adult diapers over the humiliation of wetting my bed and having someone else clean the sheets.”
For years, my dad chose the latter. Heck, maybe I’ll even grow in my self-acceptance so that I won’t view incontinence as humiliation.
I also want to maintain some style. Right until the end my mother, who died earlier this year, continued to have her hair styled and colored, and her manicured nails painted her trademark Jungle Red. I wrote:
“If I can’t take care of my personal grooming any more, I will find help. If I don’t care about my personal grooming any more, I will find different help.” At the very least I want to be clean — and smell fresh, like Mom — so people sit by me and hold my hand.
“Whiten teeth” is also on my list. A friend of mine has this entry on her list: “Wear pants that touch the tops of my shoes at least.”
My list also acknowledges my quickness to anger, which is a trait I shared with both parents. A year before Mom’s death her aide repeatedly asked her to do some post-surgical breathing exercises prescribed by the oncologist, but which she hated doing because they were challenging. One afternoon, Mom, in deep frustration, lashed out at the aide using language I’m too embarrassed to repeat, and I was the one who took the aide’s call of justified complaint. Onto my list went:
“If I’m hurt or angry by what’s happening to me or my body, I will do my best not to take it out on those who are closest to me.”
“I will be kind.”
“I will apologize.”
As I march onward from 60, I continue to pay attention and maintain my list. But I remain mindful of what one friend told me: “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.”
Ironically, I have some guidance on that as well. My grandmother, the one who fell on the subway, once made a similar list, which I found among my father’s papers. Hers included:
- Do not fall.
- Work on controlling forgetfulness
- Think before you speak
- Eat moderately and no rich desserts
- Do the best you can. Learn by your errors.
I certainly hope to learn from her errors, and my parents’, and avoid making too many of my own. Mostly I hope to be able to judge when to stop adding to the list, and start following its advice.
Steven Petrow is a columnist for the New York Times. He is the author of Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: A Highly Judgmental, Unapologetically Honest Accounting of All the Things Our Elders Are Doing Wrong.
Credit: New York Times