Death denial and youth glorification go hand in hand in our culture. Today, I’ll look a bit more at some of the cost of denial in terms of aging and a loss in capacity for the majority of us. I’ll start with some questions . . . How many of us will voluntarily give up our car keys? How many will willingly concede to family or friends that we are having a difficult time managing our daily existence? In my experience, the number is small. It takes a combination of honest self-assessment, a well-developed self-awareness, a special types of candor, or just something catastrophic that “calls the question!” For the former, I think of a cousin’s late father, just a few years older than my father (his cousin). He was a retired physician and at one point detected some cognitive “slippage” which did not seem to be age-related. He got himself to the doctor and shortly after getting his dementia diagnosis, updated his estate plan and moved to another state with his wife to live his remaining years close to one of his children. His children no longer resided in the same state where they were raised.
Many of us would not be willing to make such a drastic change, perhaps because it doesn’t fit in with our idea of how our life in our elder years is “supposed to be” and doesn’t seem to fit with our idea of how we should “be independent” and not be a burden on loved ones. But often the simple denial of the inevitable, along with the lack of planning and of stock-taking, means that we most certainly will be a burden on our loved ones. I have joked with clients about this, that no client has ever informed me that they want to be a burden on their adult children . . . !
Of course there is also the financial piece of the planning. Given the meager state of average retirement savings for many boomers and other elders, along with the hard reality that many retirees are just one health catastrophe away from bankruptcy, some folks take the “why bother?” approach as an excuse to do nothing. Procrastination is, after all, an effective means by which to focus on what really matters – or at least what keeps us busy, which are seldom the same thing!
Okay, enough with the wisecracks. Death denial is only one side of the coin here so to speak, and on the other side is the youth glorification, its own form of denial of encroaching mortality. In our present independence obsessed “aging in place” mantra muttering mainstream, we often fail to see the hidden costs of our independence and the burdens it often places on others.
Yes, I’m thinking of all the family (unpaid) caregivers. The vast majority would not have it any other way most of the time, but the fact is that our longevity is getting longer and less financially certain all the time! Couple that with the shrinking number of women (the ones who have tended to provide these services) who do not work outside the home who are available for such work) and it can cause some genuine concern. More of us, particularly many of the divorced and single baby boomer cohort, will face much more interesting challenges with our often fractured and reconfigured family lives. There is no “standard template” for a blended family relationship.
While I’m thinking of it, here’s a link to a recent US News & World Report article about family caregiving and how its future is changing.
Another aspect of the youth glorification beyond the self-loathing some elders feel is the denigration of the aged, the ideas that elders are no longer worthy because of their diminished capacity, usefulness or social or economic relevance. This is when being an elder becomes a human rights issue! Yes, I’ve blogged about the human rights of elder previously, but this is an evolving field. I’ve recently learned about an organization called The Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People. This organization is comprised of several international organizations as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who work together to raise awareness of the threats and challenges elders face in different parts of the world and supports the creation of international human rights instruments as tools to strengthen the rights of older people.
So I will close with an observation which I believe is illustrated by a Carl Sandburg poem featured below. Is it really too difficult to filter through the noise and the modern day disease of incessant busy-ness to talk about this? What if we could consider the present importance of our relationships which sustain us in a long term “what if” scenario that went beyond the planning for our inevitable demise? Would that change the way we are living right now? I think it would. I also think quieting the mind and considering the stillness is one means of opening the door to welcome those questions for contemplation and consideration.
The Answer, by Carl Sandburg
You have spoken the answer.
A child searches far sometimes
Into the red dust
On a dark rose leaf
And so you have gone far
For the answer is:
In the republic
Of the winking stars
and spent cataclysms
Sure we are it is off there the answer is hidden and folded over,
Sleeping in the sun, careless whether it is Sunday or any other day
of the week,
Knowing silence will bring all one way or another.
Have we not seen
Purple of the pansy
out of the mulch
into a dusk
blur of yellow?
Almost we thought from nowhere but it was the silence,
© Barbara E. Cashman 2016 www.DenverElderLaw.org