I think a lot about aging. This is largely due to the fact that I work in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. It’s pretty difficult to spend your days working with 80-100 year-old folks and not have your mind drift toward the inevitableness of your own life path there. Should I be so lucky… Or unlucky.
Until recently, I have not really been one to dwell on my own aging too much. But the effects are starting rear their ugly head. Literally, as one of the effects is that my head is getting uglier. I’m seeing a lot more gray in my hair, which, I understand, would be a “distinguishing” feature, if not for the accompanying hair line recession- (I plan to do a whole separate post about my baldness-battling adventures). I no longer have the energy to hop right out of bed in the mornings like I used to. The lingering pain from attempted athletic endeavors takes a bit longer to go away. There is an increased frequency with which I must pluck sudden, large renegade hairs from obscure, random locations on my body. I’m becoming more aware of “heart health”. And I’m realizing that I’m just a hop, a skip, and an invasive prod away from having to keep tabs on my prostate size.
When I think of very old people, I think of people who grew up on farms.. people who went to major wars.. people who suffered through the Great Depression.. people who weathered significant hardships. They are the “Greatest Generation”. It is a generation of men and women who are so easy to respect and feel compassion for because of all they’ve been through and how hard they had to work just to survive. I think of people huddled around radios listening to their favorite music and shows, as well as presidential addresses. I think of people who, having worked a hard week on the farm, got excited to go out dancing on a Saturday night to some fine swing or big band music; the fellas, perhaps emulating Fred Astaire, while the ladies donned the shoes of Ginger Rogers.
I think of a generation of people in which everybody knew somebody who was killed in a war.
Some of the places I work in have small theatres with old movie posters. Gone with the Wind and Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn adorns one. I can often get a toe tapping by putting on some Duke Ellington or Dean Martin. I have spent a great deal of time smiling over incredible pictures from the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. It’s a bitter-sweet sharing by them… these pictures with me. Sweet for the memories that sustain these wonderful people; bitter for the distance that separates them from it. I have welled up many times over these pictures. A 101-year old woman showed me pictures from her teen years. She was the captain of her basketball team. I had no idea there were female basketball teams in the 20’s. A man in his 90’s showed me pictures of him during his army days. He had served in three wars and was wounded four times (once severely). He liked to tell me that he was “170 pounds of pure muscle back then”. Many people show me pictures of their spouse that has passed away. Those always choke me up. Many of them have pictures that show when they were first together, and then a picture of a 50th
anniversary in the same frame. And there are lots of pictures of their children growing up into adulthood, which are tough to see because I recognize them as the same as my parent’s pictures of youth. Often times, I will visit with these children and am stricken to see that they are in their 60’s and 70’s, and realize that my children will be 60 some day, perhaps visiting me. Which makes me realize that the chain of time is ever being pulled. Link by link.
Earlier, I described some of the more superficial aspects of aging that have gained my attention in recent months. But that’s not the part that really trips me out. It’s the idea that my generation is someday going to be in nursing homes. This absolutely boggles my mind when I think about it. I come from Generation X. I’m not even sure what in the world that means- “Gen-X”… There was the “Greatest Generation”, which created the “Baby Boomers”, which created “Generation X”…? I don’t know.
Perhaps X is simply a variable, by which X = BB + 20 (give or take 10), in which BB = Baby Boomers…. my algebra teachers always hated it when I wrote (give or take 10) on the tests.
Anyway, someday the chain link that holds Generation X will be pulled into the geriatric phase of life, and that is just near-incomprehensible to me. I simply can’t wrap my mind around the idea that the Betty’s and Esther’s of the current geriatric generation are going to be replaced by the Sarah’s and Jennifer’s of mine some day. The contrast between that generation and mine could not be more…. contrasty. I have described their generation- at any given time, they didn’t know if they were going to die from starvation, disease, or Axis firearms. My generation, on the other hand, probably experienced the least amount of stress of any in American history. Ours was one born after the tumult of Vietnam and enjoyed most of our prime years before the tumult of 9-11. The last great threat of my youth essentially fell with the Berlin Wall- an event that I didn’t fully appreciate during my blissfully ignorant youth. I was probably more excited to get a piece of the wall (as I was in Germany at the time), than I was for what it actually meant. The only real horrific event that comes to my mind during my young adulthood was the genocide in Rwanda. What was my generation doing during that time?… the Macarena. My generation saw the rise of hip-hop music and the internet. Phones became
more portable and smaller. Years of political correctness left us desensitized to such… sensitivities, as our taste in TV and movie humor reflected our apathy and our crudeness.
…. When I read what I just wrote above, it sounds like a verbal sneer directed at my own generation. I don’t entirely intend it that way. Part of it is based on fear. As I said before, it is very easy to respect the current geriatric generation. That respect is evident in the care I provide and witness by other caregivers for these wonderful people. When there is a “Wall of Honor” that shows pictures of these folks during WWII, you can feel nothing but respect. My concern is that when I am one day in a nursing home, that natural respect will be harder to muster by the caregivers of that time. Is being very old enough to garner that respect?
What will our nursing homes look like? What movie posters will be on our theater walls? When I think of the music from our generation playing in nursing homes, I can’t help but crack up. For some reason, I usually get a ridiculous image of C&C Music Factory blaring
and a bunch of us breaking our hips trying to dance to it. I have known some people who watch the same shows continuously. I Love Lucy is popular with one of the ladies I have known. Which of us will still be watching Seinfeld episodes everyday?
… Or, maybe I’m not thinking futuristically enough. Perhaps there will be so many of us living so long that they will need to just keep us in large rooms with rows of beds plugged into a neural network that allows us to experience a happy non-reality, a-la the Matrix. I think I would choose sensations that
aren’t real over the vague awareness of applesauce dripping down my chin from my spoon-feeding.
Nah.. that’s silly. Right?… When a nursing aid comes in some day to change my diaper, how will that go? I may have dementia, be hard of hearing, and be yelling at him/her. Perhaps it will sound like this:
Aid (yelling): “Mr. Golden, I need to change you!”
Me: “What?! Go away!”
Aid: “Mr. Golden, please put down the Nintendo controller!” (The aid pries the controller
from my gnarled hands)
Me: “Hey! Damn you! That was my last life!”
Aid: “The TV isn’t even on, Mr. Golden! Can I please turn down your music?!” (he or she turns it down)
Me: “Hey! What the hell’s going on here?!”
Aid: “What was that music?!”
Me: “Guns ‘n Roses!” (my cracked, old voice screeches “Welcome to the Jungle!” while I feebly attempt to bang my head)
Aid (smiling): “That’s great, Mr. Golden! Who is that on the movie poster there on the wall?!”
Me: “That?! Why, that’s Jim Carrey! He was a funny sumbitch!”
Aid: “Never heard of him!”
Me (mumbling under my breath): “Yeah.. you probably haven’t. Hey, is Friends on TV Land?!”
Aid: “It’s not time for TV, Mr. Golden. It’s your turn at the Holodeck!”
Me: “The what?!”
Aid: “The place where you go to see your family!”
Me: “Oh!.. Yes!”
And then the aid wheels me away to a place where I see a program of my young family and confusedly play out my role as a husband and father during the early decades of this century, smiling ignorantly the whole time…. A thought that is entirely bitter-sweet.