29 June 2011

Aging in Place

They say you’re only as old as you feel. But it’s increasingly hard to ignore one’s senior status given all the subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that come one’s way these days.

My first shock came when Luise and I consulted a contractor about updating our kitchen. The back-story involves a mouse with a strong sense of entitlement, which had settled in behind our stove and emerged every evening to dash through the living room while we watched “Without A Trace.” The weeks of battle with the little invader involved an array of 18 traps of varying design and sophistication as well as scented repellents and poison bait-boxes, and dragged on without success. At last we decided on a truly radical solution: we would replace the old stove and drive the mouse out of its hiding place. And while we were at it, why not get rid of the ancient, energy-gobbling refrigerator? A dishwasher might also be nice. Hence the contractor, who came highly recommended by friends.

“Hank” was eager to respond to our needs, which he immediately identified as remodeling in such a way that we could “age in place,” rather than moving to a nursing home or similar facility. Doors and kitchen areas wide enough for a wheel chair would be necessary. Moreover, our house really lacked a bedroom and full bath on the first floor, he said, important in case one or both of us became unable to climb the stairs. We appreciated “Hank’s” concern for our future, although we were sobered by his assumption that such grave infirmities lay just around the corner for us. Sobered also by the projected cost of such improvements, we decided to put off “aging in place.” Besides, the mouse had finally succumbed to its last nibble of peanut-butter-on-trap.

But the contractor’s vision has raised the specter of gradual decline, and his perspective is reinforced by other elements of our environment. For one thing, we know that we are not alone. Our evening television viewing is peppered with commercials informing us of the growing number of ailments and conditions we and our contemporaries might soon share, from dangerous cholesterol levels to incontinence to COPD (whatever that is), not to mention the male-specific but no longer shameful or inevitable E.D. Apparently, only the elderly watch the evening news.

Hardly do I begin to fret over the likelihood that my forgetfulness is a sign of early Alzheimer’s than a ray of hope shines through the gray of the woman in the tv ad suffering from depression: all she has to do is ask her doctor if “Abilify” (or some other miraculous drug) is right for her. Of course, she must watch for the multitude of potential side-effects that are hurriedly recited and almost always include death. But if her doctor does declare it’s right for her she is on her way to renewed happiness in her garden or with her adorable grandchildren, or holding hands in twin bathtubs with her Viagra-infused mate. The message seems to be: you’re old, you’re sick, get over it – with our product. 

But even if I try to ignore the ads or turn off the television, I’m assaulted by my increasingly age-appropriate mail.  The AARP sends regular warnings of my need for insurance, either to supplement Medicare or to pay for long-term care, accompanied by an offer to sign up before it’s too late. I am also very popular with companies offering hearing tests, hearing aids, programs to detect stroke and heart-attack risk, and invitations to participate in studies of “healthy aging.” Offers of reverse mortgages or to put my house on the market have started coming in, as well as ads for retirement communities and assisted living facilities. And a growing number of educational institutions and charities write wondering if I will consider them in my estate plan.

But last week I received the starkest notice yet that old age, even death would soon be knocking at the door. An official-looking piece of mail arrived bearing the label: “IMPORTANT NON-GOVERNMENTAL DOCUMENT ENCLOSED: OPEN IMMEDIATELY – DO NOT DELAY.” Inside, I discovered that I may qualify for the “Funeral Advantage Program.” If I act quickly I could receive assistance in paying for my funeral and other final expenses. But if I delay, I may not receive the necessary information in a timely manner.

Feeling the need for an abilifying nap to help me cope with the ever heavier burdens of age, I hobble upstairs to my support mattress and pillow. I drip artificial tears into my eyes and settle back, recalling the issues I must deal with in the next months: a colonoscopy, trips to the ophthalmologist, dentist and dermatologist; I do hope my stiff joints and constipation will leave me in peace. I have just slipped into a drowsy, somewhat anxious haze when the telephone rings. “This is the Diabetes Society,” a woman’s voice announces, then asks, “Do you have diabetes?”  When I say no the voice hangs up. I wonder what hope she might have held out to me had I said yes.

I try to turn my thoughts in a positive direction. Age has its benefits too, after all. You get a discount at the movies and on the T. You get a bigger income tax deduction. People don’t expect as much of you. You have more memories, if only you could remember them.

In place or out of place, aging seems here to stay.

# | Joey Horsley on 29 Jun 2011 at 08:20 AM | printer-friendly

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Hedwig Dohm