I am the middle aged you, writing this letter to the old you, twenty or so years ago.
At the time of writing this your parents are 87 (Dad) and 84 (Mom). Dad has just had a fall, because he, nearly blind with AMD, had tried to climb a ladder to get down a box that wasn’t important enough to be sorted the day before, when you were at their home and couldn’t wait until the next day to be sorted, when you would be there again.
The day before his accident you had suggested that a break from the daily visit would be good as you were feeling a bit tetchy at their techiness. While you could not visit him often enough, for Mom, your constant presence was a little overwhelming and made her feel her role was being usurped. She commented from time to time that she was being made to “feel useless”. Mom was battling with memory loss. On her good days she would acknowledge her memory loss “ I have even forgotten what I have forgotten, it's terrifying” but on her bad days she would rant at you saying you were ruining her life and making her feel incompetent. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal doses but for both, you were needing a day to regroup.
Mom had become very good at hiding her memory loss although it became very difficult when someone kept pitching up. I suspect you made her feel exposed. Dementia is/was still something people battled to deal with. She herself had observed others battling with it and felt embarrassed for them so she knew it was definitely something to be ashamed of, something to deny, something to hide. I hope that has changed and that 20 years on it has become ‘mainstream’ and that people do not feel shame at the onset of something they cannot control or that those witnessing it do not feel embarrassed or fade away because they do not know how to respond to it. I hope it has been normalised. You too, were complicit in not acknowledging the change in Mom, pretending it wasn’t happening, marvelling at her ability to mask it from all but a few and protecting her from those you thought would judge. You protected, rather than helped her come out of the proverbial closet and learn to cope with it, but you learnt along the way, as you began to accept that it was happening.
Anyway, Dad fell off the ladder. Only the first step I think but he bashed his shin and a haematoma developed. Please remember, if you bash yourself it will need ice, not heat! As the bruise spread and the leg swelled, on the doctor's advice, Dad rested. Being on blood thinners, the bruise continued to spread, the leg continued to swell and you became a bit panicky and sent daily pictures to the Doc who confirmed that it would get worse before it got better. The haematoma remained the size of an egg, although at this stage, the size of an ostrich egg, not a chickens’. Dad was not a patient man, he wanted it to heal quickly so he could get up and about again and so he decided that he needed to lie flat with just his leg up. Not a good idea but no amount of encouragement could get him to sit up against cushions AND have his leg up.
So with the blood thinners, the bruise continued to spread. Because of lying flat on his back for a week, the water retention, for which he was also on medication, settled in his abdomen around his organs instead of his ankles - which incidentally looked much better - resulting in a lung infection. The breaking down of the blood cells in his leg caused jaundice and I suppose, all of this together, along with a suspected dose of Covid, caused the heart failure. On top of this his digestive system stopped working as it should (constipation) and he contracted a urinary tract infection. He was admitted into hospital. He stayed there two weeks. No sight and very frail so no distractions other than the coming and going of fellow, similarly aged inmates in varying stages of degeneration, which thankfully, he couldn’t see very well, if at all.
With Dad in hospital, Mom got lost. Before, she had been able to follow and rebel against Dad’s lead but without him, it all became terribly confusing. It could have been Monday or March, morning or evening but she wanted to continue being and doing things she had always done, independently. Driving to the shops was one of those things. It gave her a sense of purpose, except she could not remember what she needed to buy and in which shops she should be buying them. These trips resulted in many bottles of Handy Andy, many onions and a few carrots and bananas. Not much else unless you counted the various face creams and the eyebrow pencil.
It's funny how happy things can make you cry and sad things can make you laugh.
The driving had to stop however, so her car was taken in for a service, a very long service. The service was legitimate, the length of time it took, not so much. She smelt a rat! This made her very cross and suspicious as, of course she should have been. It was planned and that part of her brain still firing, knew it. That's the problem. It would be fine if the whole brain shut down but piece by piece is excruciating as it is a bit like ‘now you see her, now you don’t’. We did not want to make her feel bad about herself for an affliction she could not help but letting her drive was not good for anyone’s nerves hence the subterfuge. Later on we switched tack and shifted from being cunning and devious to upfront and honest “you can't drive because you get lost and that makes us worry,” as much for ourselves as for Mom. As I write this, I do not know which is the kinder approach for the person losing their memory, reassuring her that she is fine or reminding her that she is not, but perhaps you do now?
Back to the reason for this letter. With Dad in hospital, Mom being lost and you having other responsibilities in your own life you put out a distress call to which both your sisters responded. Sara took the first shift, Kate lived a lot further away and needed a little more planning so she took the second shift. I truly hope you are still best friends, that they are still with you and you didn’t get into any post parent wars like so many families do and most of all, that you remember who they are.
The reason I am telling you about all this drama is because this is the phase of life you have just entered. You are no longer ageing, you are old. I sincerely hope you are rocking being old. Given your parentage, you are likely to be willful (climbing ladders), intent on being independent (driving beyond your best before date) , secretive and proud (that's just in your nature). Although by now you may also have managed to grow up.
Whatever your state, I thought you may need a reminder from someone who may be less wise than you are now but is definitely of a sounder mind and body and who loves you very much so only has your best interests at heart. So here are some of my thoughts:
You are likely to do something stupid at some stage. Accept the consequences. Accept what is. Always.
Make sure you are in a retirement village with frail care facilities. If you can’t afford that, find a caring community to be part of.
Make sure you have good medical aid, again, if you can afford it. However, a good medical aid is a double edged sword because you will have access and be encouraged to take things to lengthen your life. At this stage, that may not be such a good idea. For example, what is good for healing one ailment like cancer, can cause another ailment like osteoporosis so then you are taking medication to counter other medication. Before going for tests, which everyone will encourage you to do, consider whether you really want to know and if you know, are the unintended consequences of the remedy worth it?
I suggest you buy yourself a pack of padded panties while you still find the idea of it amusing. You will need them pretty soon.
Make sure you have people around you that give you a sense of community.
Remember that the people you still have in your life love you very much. Trust them and listen to them however annoying they are. You have had all the time in the world to be independent or interdependent. Now you have to get comfortable with becoming dependent again unless you are lucky enough to die peacefully in your sleep beforehand.
Hopefully by now you have come to terms with the end being inevitable and have continued adding to that kick ass funeral playlist you had. Listen to those songs, they will give you hours to remember some of the special and painful moments you have enjoyed and endured.
Whatever you have lost, be it friends, family, body parts, body functions or your mind, focus on what you still have and treasure it. No amount of lamenting what was will bring them back, make the most of what’s left instead.
Prepare for the worst, you can be sure it will happen. You are going to die and you are going to experience pain. If you accept it and are prepared for the worst then you can, as per Dad’s favourite writing ‘live each day as if it were your last’, with peace and joy.
If dementia is creeping up on you, I hope you wear it like a badge of honour. It is not something to be fearful or ashamed of. If you have done the first five things on this list then people will be there to look out for you. Laugh with them.
Also, it is not all about you. People around you have their own stuff to deal with. If you are going through something, you can be bloody sure someone else is too and may have it worse or be struggling even more to deal with it.
I know the theory is that we are born alone and we die alone but that is not really true. We are never really alone, even when we feel like we are or there are no people around.
When those close to you say, “it's time to stop driving.” Stop driving. Hopefully, you have got to this point of your life without being in an accident or harming anyone or anything. Now is not the time to test your luck.
Accept what is. Being 70, 60, 50, 40 or young, had its own challenges. You made it through all those milestones but only rose tinted glasses will make you want to go back there and rose tinted glasses lie. Anyway, the joy of it is that you can go back to the good parts any time you want in your mind. That is, if you still have a mind that can remember.
Find joy in what you still have access to. Right down to the last. If you have pain, it's because you are still alive, find the spots in your body where you feel no pain. If your whole body is in pain, that's what drugs are for.
If you are alive you will still be breathing, check every now and again to make sure. There is great joy in noticing the breath going in and out your nostrils. All the world's greatest meditations start with this act. I hope you kept up your practice. If not, it's never too late to start again.
Remember that your children don’t owe you anything. It was your choice to bring them into the world and it was your choice to give them what you gave them and any sacrifices you made on their behalf was also your choice. Don’t create your own suffering by having expectations of them. You wanted them to make their own choices and to live their lives to the fullest. If that means they are physically far away, nothing can stop you keeping them close to you in your heart.
If your children choose to be around, accept their presence and help with gratitude but don’t get creepy about it. If they are helping you because they think they have to , then they need to work that out for themselves. If they have to help you because you didn’t get your shit together well, hopefully you won’t overstay your welcome.
You cannot have got to this age without hurting anyone - you already had an impressive list of what you can remember at 56 - make sure you have made amends where you can. If you can’t, make amends in absentia. The same for anyone who has hurt you. Let it go. They had their own cross to bear. Most importantly, forgive yourself, you are not the person you were.
Only you know what is going on inside you. All others can see is what you express. Don’t fret about repeating yourself or telling the same stories over and over or reminiscing endlessly. They will cope. They may even enjoy the stories the first few times and after that, make fun of you behind your back, at least you will still be giving them something to laugh about and they still love you.
Listen more than you talk, you will learn so much more that way and others stories will give you so much to go over and over in your head when you are on your own.
Be kind. Always. Be kind to others and be kind to yourself. From what I have seen, old age is not for the faint hearted. It is tough, so just be kind.
Find a moment of joy or wonder in each day. Knowing that you are just a little part of an extraordinary story will diminish your pain or suffering to what it is, matter, air and water made to appear as something personal by your mind.
Let go of who you were and be what you are. It's great, because you can also leave all the baggage that ‘who you were’ carried and what you are is so much lighter for it.
People around you, particularly your children, will not want to see you suffer. Listen to them but also ask them to allow you your suffering, it is your right as much as peace and joy are. Let them know it is yours, not theirs. They’ll get their own turn one day.
Hopefully you will have made every effort not to become a burden when you had the chance, however, trying not to be a burden somehow makes you one. If others want to help, let them help. If you are at peace with where you are at, they will see and respect that too. If you are not, others will want to step in.
Check yourself - are you still trying to control things? If yes, well then go back to the beginning. Nothing is - has ever been - in your control and will most certainly not be now.
Have a pet if you can, there is nothing like a warm body close by. Avoid human pets though.
Try not to complain, it's boring for everyone but you and life is tough for everyone, not just you. Complaining makes whatever you are complaining about stick to you. Let it go.
Don’t start questioning your faith now, it's hard enough being old but now is not the time to start questioning what's next. It's going to happen whether you worry about it or not. The time for that was in your mid life crisis, not now. You will only make yourself miserable. Rather focus on making amends sincerely, if you haven’t already, and hope for the best.
In summary, be kind, be grateful, let go, travel light.
I am sure the world will have changed so much by the time you read this and my observations may be irrelevant. If that is the case, I hope you remember the younger you with fondness but without longing. You now know what you couldn’t possibly have known then. Then you just knew what being old looked like, now you know what it feels like too. You are where you are meant to be and if you have got to 80 you must be proud. It's a huge achievement given all those cigarettes you smoked!
I just want to make sure you are relaxing into it and that you have your big girl panties on because this is one time that there is no survival of the fittest. Those who accept where they are at in their life process have the best chance of a peaceful exit. Be strong enough to be vulnerable.