Aging Gracefully… or Disgracefully?

Official Portrait, Promotion to Colonel, 1959

Official Portrait, Promotion to Colonel, 1959

Somewhere along the line, word got out that I knew something about aging parents. During the seven years that I cared for my father, and the eighteen months since, I’ve received many a call or email from adult children – correction, daughters – who were deeply concerned about their parent’s welfare and at sea when it came to figuring out solutions. One was a friend who was actually collecting information on behalf of her husband, although the husband didn’t know she was looking for advice and she was uncertain how much she could suggest to him. If the wise men had been women, so the old joke goes, they would have arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts and there would be peace on earth – all because they asked directions.

After a while, my marketer’s brain started to look at their stories as data that fell into two groups: those whose parents who were grateful for a little help, and those who seemed to become nasty and difficult. Call it aging gracefully versus disgracefully. I don’t mean to be flippant or suggest that a bunch of elders are out there besmirching the family reputation. Aside from a few outliers who were sociopaths in their youthful years and whose tendencies ripened with time, the latter group is made up of people who were once decent human beings before age stripped them of their filter and embittered them. Their younger selves would be disappointed in their older selves.

My father fell into the changed-for-the-better group. When I was growing up, his authority was absolute. He did not yell or hurl scornful statements or fling barbs. He said little. He didn’t have to. I knew – my brothers and I all knew – when we were on thin ice. It was in my father’s eyes. He froze and simply looked at us – a level stare, unflinching. We were put on notice without a word. He transformed into The Colonel. There were no coiled muscles waiting to explode – the telltale sign of a violent father. Nothing in our experience suggested that he would strike. He was too controlled. But something in his eyes hinted at a potential. He later described his own father as “severe” and his older brother as a bully; harassed to the point of retaliation, he described futilely trying to wound his brother only to be held out of reach as his brother laughed at him. Maybe my sense of threat came from a glimpse of something long buried, the soldier self that enabled him to survive WWII. He said nothing, he did nothing, but I feared my father; loved him, longed for his approval, competed for his attention, but feared him.

The danger dissipated with age; whatever reservoir of anger he had stored up leaked away. He did not rail at the indignities of aging, though he did not like them. This business of the bladder for example. Whose idea was it to make peeing both difficult – a long time coming and an anemic stream once started – and hard to control, so much so that my father avoided going anywhere without a bathroom in sight and more than once ended up urinating in my neighbor’s yard when he couldn’t make it back to my house during a walk? And no one expects an old person to be funny. My father would jest and I would have to explain to his audience, in the silence that followed, “That was a joke.” Most people did not address my father; they would first address me, speaking of my father to me, treating him like an imbecile. His aging made me angry but it did not seem to affect him that way.

I can’t let go of my questions. During those seven years and in the time since he’s died, I continue to wonder: how is it that one elder becomes kinder, and another mean? Is there a way to influence or control how one feels about the many cruelties of aging? What will happen to me?

I read and hypothesize. An op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks in the New York Times boils things down to an equation. One describes oneself as a happy person when one’s happiness (y) is greater than one’s unhappiness (x): when y > x. He wasn’t writing about aging, in fact his point was that the most unhappy people are self-aggrandizing, materialistic fame-seekers or promiscuous hedonists, people who are generally in their prime. The answer to happiness, he concluded, is to love people, not things: “It requires the courage to repudiate pride and the strength to love others – family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, God and even strangers and enemies.”

Aging is nothing if not a punch to the solar plexus of pride. But assaults on one’s pride don’t seem to explain who will transform into kinder and gentler versions of their younger selves.

One friend of mine theorizes that women are better prepared for old age because of the many adjustments they have to make in their self-image. With the arrival of one’s “monthly visitor” or “period” or “curse,” suddenly you’re transformed into a woman, someone capable of bearing another human being. Being pregnant is a different kind of shock. Love or hate the experience, hardly anyone is neutral. Besides feeling like an alien in one’s own body, or worse, feeling like one is gestating an alien, the cultural rules bend sideways and suddenly someone you’re meeting for the first time puts his hand on your belly by way of introduction and says, “Hi, I’m Pete and I see you’re expecting a baby.” And let’s not even talk about menopause. (Beware, says the menopausal woman.) Unfortunately, I’ve heard just as many stories about difficult mothers as difficult fathers. Maybe more, because mothers more often push the hidden buttons that fathers don’t even know exist.

Then there is the school of suffering. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times, “Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.” I know this was true in my father’s case. He was a different father after the death of my sister Midge, who died just short of her fourth birthday. He often referred to the different way he and my mother parented my two older brothers compared to how they raised us two “youngers.” The difference can’t be explained by the seven year gap between the pairs of children or my parents’ increased age – 40 and 41 when I was born. David Brooks continues: “Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.”

In Brooks’ statement, “vulnerability” sounds right, but it’s the “gratefully” that resounds. My father became more grateful as he aged, grateful for the wife and daughter he loved, even when they were beyond his reach in death, grateful to be welcomed into a family, even though he lost his independence, grateful for the years of life that had somehow, miraculously, been granted to him, even during the days of pain and confusion. Did gratitude make him more tender, or did tenderness make him more grateful?

This is a problem I am unable to solve. My father’s kindness overflowed; I know because I experienced it everyday. Gordon Morino, professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, wrote, “…in moments of tenderness it is as though the ego and all its machinations momentarily melt away so that our feelings are heightened and we are perhaps moved by the impulse to reach out with a comforting hand.” My father did not mourn what he lost – his virility, his independence, his place in the world. On Christmas Day, eighteen days before he died, I asked if he had enjoyed his holiday morning. He answered, “It’s enough being here.”


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2 responses to “Aging Gracefully… or Disgracefully?

  1. Thanks, Debra. I keep thinking about this – is it that humility grows, and lets gratitude in? When you figure it out, let me know. And I appreciate your stopping by to share your experience.

  2. Debra Bowles

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Betsy. Once again you have so eloquently shared your path with your father and it has touched and opened up wonderful reflection of my own parent’s aging journey. My father was similar in that he softened and had great appreciation for his family in his final years. And my mother, now 92 with dementia, is a beacon of gratitude and appreciation. She has a few conversational loops left and they all begin with “I’m well cared for, this is such a nice room, I don’t have a care in the world.” May I age as openly and gracefully. Thank you for creating beautiful space for me this morning in appreciation of both my parents. Love to be following your journey. Best, Debra

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