I live in Minneapolis in a senior cooperative. I am 71 years “old” or sometimes I say I am 71 years young; it depends on the day. I have vascular dementia, which means I don’t have a “normal” blood flow to my brain, so I fear losing more and more of my memory. I’ve also inherited my mother’s osteoarthritis. I have “new” knees, both shoulders and one hip. Hopefully, I’ll keep my other hip. And I’ve been a writer, educator and activist most of my adult life.
I don’t think most of us think about getting “old.” As a kid, I thought I’d live forever. I was a great athlete (before Title IX) and dreamt of being the first woman to play in the major leagues. I was a damn good shortstop. Getting old? Never thought about it at all. My momma did not sit me down on her knee when I was a kid, and say, “Lisa…let me tell you about getting old…”
Now, I worry that I might fall on the ice as we head toward winter. If I don’t use my cane, I could fall … It is terrifying to think about getting older. Doctors keep prolonging people’s lives (even if we don’t want to live any longer). I have a life partner who has Alzheimer’s. When she got the diagnosis, over a decade ago, she cried. Now, she can no longer speak, or get out of bed. She is lucky (and I am as well, since I am her power of attorney), she lives in a wonderful memory care household where she is well cared for. That’s a rarity. So many of us seniors cannot afford to live in safe environments. I fear that my memory will get worse, and I will lose my ability to function independently. Again, I had a good job and socked away as much money as I could when I worked.
The senior coop where I live is for us “old” people. Most of us function fairly well where I live, but I miss intergenerational living. I was an educator for 35 plus years, and I long to be around younger people as well as seniors. As an educator, I always believed that I learned more from the young people I taught than I was able to teach them. I taught at the University of Minnesota. And I miss teaching very much.
I often think in metaphors. I have more sunsets in front of me than sunrises. Who knows? I could live to be 80 or 90. My parents lived until they were in their late 80s. They were working class people and lived in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City. I spent the last 10 years of my life traveling between Minneapolis and NYC to manage their care. My mother had Alzheimer’s, so I know too much about what Alzheimer’s can do to a human being, though you cannot generalize. My partner smiles, eats with help and is kind to everyone who works at the household where she lives. That’s not always the case.
I have no siblings and no partner, so I fear managing my own care as I age. I still drive … very carefully, and I am willing to give up driving when it’s time. I often ask people for rides, and I ride buses and the light rail. I’m lucky enough to also have a geriatric doctor and a great primary care doctor. I have good health care, which is more than most elders have in this country. My geriatric doctor, after reading my memory tests, has reported that I’m “hanging in.” What does that exactly mean? I function in the world, get out and about, and take copious notes in my datebook to remember everything. However, only a week ago, I misplaced my hard copy datebook and couldn’t remember what I had to do. I emailed everyone I had been in contact with, and thankfully, one of my friends DID have my datebook. I fear keeping a calendar on my phone. I did not grow up using all of today’s technology. I have a laptop and phone and manage, but there’s no way I could keep up with significant changes in technology.
So dear MinnPost readers, why am I writing this for publication?
We Elders, are often invisible. The bottom line is that we are often perceived as expendable. In various cultures around the world, Elders are treated with respect and valued for their wisdom. They are cared for by the family unit. That is not consistent with Western “values.”
I want people to THINK SERIOUSLY about getting old. Talk to each other about the “what if” scenarios. Who will help you if you fall? What if you can’t figure out how to pay for your bills online? Do you have a doctor whom you trust and who will advise you on any medical treatments you might need? Do you qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, and are there ways you can get support to live out your life with dignity? How do you not become too isolated? If you are a “young” person, and there’s not a set definition of “young,” don’t ignore those of us who are Elders. By the way, I prefer to say “Elders” because saying “elderly” implies to me being more infirm. Yes, I use a cane, but don’t assume I can’t understand you. I rest my case.
Lisa Albrecht is activist educator and writer. She is an emeritus associate professor in the School of Social Work of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.