Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Understanding Your Old Person

cartoon by Jan Tomaschoff
For a long time, it seems, I've thought I would write a number of posts explaining being old to those who are not.  I'd think of specific things, like how it feels to stand in line at the checkout, slowly identifying the correct credit card and pulling it out with arthritic fingers, carefully putting it through the unfamiliar device only to have it fail, how it feels when a young person grabs it and puts it through so we can all get on with life.  Or I'd watch an elderly woman in the ophthalmologist's waiting room with the daughter who drove her there. The woman is scared of it all, quite reasonably, of the eye drops, the exam, and the probable findings, and tries to chat with her daughter, who would rather read a magazine.  Or I'd think about how it becomes a challenge to take a shower once you've had a couple of bad falls.  And how difficult it is to make big decisions anymore, like getting the bathroom renovated.  I thought each of these was a subject in itself.  I could write a book, I thought.

But this morning I was somehow inspired by rereading John Tarrant's workup on the koan "Bring me the rhinoceros," to see it from a different angle.  I saw that the problem is not that the Old Person in your life has changed; the problem is your re-action.  You don't want him to change.  You want to have A Dad all your life, of course you do; so you refuse to accept the evidence of the strokes.  You say, He could do it if he wanted to - find his keys, eat the food you left in the frig.  You don't want to be alone in this world, without a Dad or Mom to make things right.  We can call this not accepting reality.  Reality is one of those Zen things.

Sometimes our problem with The Old Person is talked about as being at the top of the pyramid now, but it doesn't feel like that at all. The stone at the top of a pyramid is supported by all the other stones. It is a solid position.  Having your Mom lose her Momness is the very opposite; it leaves you without support.  And it seems to come all of a sudden, though the tender decay of aging is slow as rust or lichen.

You are not really helped by the articles online about Being a Caregiver, which encourage you to be more selfish, to consider your needs.  There is merit to the idea of caregiver respite; you may be swinging automatically from tree to tree, doing what you think you ought to do, fleeing from the reality of the breakdown.  If so, odds are that your old person might enjoy a respite from excessive caregiving.  He may not want his very own cellphone; maybe the thought freaks him out.  You may think he needs to get with it.  Maybe you need to get with it, too.

Get with the great hairy beast of change, aging and loss.  The rhinoceros that reality is, barging into our party, upsetting the pitcher of sangria and tearing the hammock from its mooring.  The old person is not a problem, but a person.  Your denial of the reality of her decreasing competence, your insistent desire for security - that's the problem.  Mixed in there might even be your beliefs that you have more important things to do than sit in a hospital room waiting for your old person's doctor to show up, your conviction that you can get things straight.

Things are not straight.  There are no straight lines in nature, and few in your old person's veins anymore. Reality is not a laboratory, more like an amusement park or Las Vegas.  The best way to deal with it is to enter the stream.

The answer is not exactly an answer, or not the one you're looking for.  It is to approach each moment  with the intention to be fully aware of that Old Person, whether it is you or someone else, and of your own mess of reactions.  This growing old is not a curse.  In fact, it is the best way things can go:  the parents get old and die, then the children get old and die.  You might as well vow to open your heart to all of it.

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