Commentary: The scary thought of growing old

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramAugust 20, 2012 


Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

ROSS HAILEY — MCT/Fort Worth Star-Telegram

While going through their deceased parents' "stuff" one night last month, two sisters found an old newspaper article that their mother and father had kept.

One of the sisters, a lifelong resident of Fort Worth, sent me a copy of the column and a heart-wrenching message, saying in part that she didn't know how old the clipping was, "but my dad went to be with the Lord in 1992 and my mother in 2003. As I read the article, it made me wonder if they worried about what would happen when they grew old. Did they worry my sister and I would not take care of them? I hope not."

She went on to explain that her dad died of a sudden heart attack while sitting in his La-Z-Boy recliner watching Matlock, and her mother went 11 years later.

"With mother it was necessary to live in an assisted-living home when it became impossible for her to live by herself," the woman wrote. "My sister, who lived in Arkansas at the time, found a wonderful place less than 15 minutes from my home. My daughter moved back from Chicago to help take care of her."

The woman, who turns 65 this month, said she spent a lot of time with her mother but now wonders if it was enough.

"I know there were times she was lonely, but I hope there were not many," she said.

That faded newspaper column she found posed some of the same questions she has been asking herself.

I know those questions well because I had written the piece sometime in the mid-1980s. The headline on the column was "Growing old scary thought," and the last line read: "Let me assure you, though, that I'm more afraid of growing old than I am of dying."

The topic had come to mind when a friend and I were having one of those philosophical discussions about whether it would be better to die young than to grow old and perhaps helpless.

It was a timely topic for me because just a few years earlier I had watched my parents die -- 11 months apart.

Watching my father suffer with cancer was a painful experience, for I saw this strong and independent man suddenly have to depend on others in ways he had never imagined.

Every time I looked into his eyes as I aided him in the least -- holding a straw to his lips for a sip of water, for example -- his eyes spoke to me. While appreciative to have loved ones around to assist him, I knew that he hated every minute of it.

Later, when I went through similar experiences with older brothers who were dying, I got that same piercing, heartbreaking look.

That column written more than 25 years ago asked a series of questions beginning with "What happens when [or if] ... " I suffer the worst of the aging process: growing feeble, needing someone to feed me or maybe having no one who cares enough or has time enough to visit, much less 'help.'"

One question asked, "What happens when the children I used to touch no longer want to feel my wrinkles, or hug my neck or laugh at my 'used-to-be' stories?"

In the past two years, I've been spending time with two older friends who have had serious health problems, and while I've been happy to share in their lives, helping any way I can, it has been tough. I've begun to see myself in them, and when that happens, I begin to ask all those growing-old questions once more.

But I try not to dwell on them too much.

The bottom line is, despite all the drawbacks and the fears of growing older, I've always preferred that to the alternative of dying young.

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