Yesterday was MLK Day, the day the nation celebrates the dream of one man that one day all people would be treated equally. The Civil Rights movement in this country was marked by acts of extreme courage. The stories of this world are written on the backs of the courageous, both individually and en masse. It has me thinking about the courage it takes to grow old.
I stood by one day last week as my mother took a shower. She still baths by herself, but needs me to put lotion on her back. I observe her 82 pound body: her crooked spine; her sagging skin that seems to be all that holds her bones together; her age-ravaged body that reminds me of the courage of the millions of Jews in concentration camps during the war that my father fought in and my mother toiled in the States through, praying that her husband would return home. With love, love for her and for her beautiful body that gave me and my sisters life, love for the privilege of being here with her, I smooth the lotion on her paper-thin skin as she sits naked in the pleasure of the touch of my hand.
I marvel at her inhibition at showing this body to me without embarrassment. It is what she has to offer, and she does so without shame or modesty. It is the same body that ran home from grade school; that hiked the trails in the Smoky Mountains; that she offered to my father as they conceived me; that rocked me to sleep, and held my own babies. And now it is frail. She is not demented. She would not throw off her clothes and walk out the front door and down the street. She would not walk out of her bedroom unclothed, even in an empty house. And yet, she offers herself to my touch without a word or a grimace.
There are many causes that call for courage, to do the best one can day after day for a long time. I wonder if old age might be the gutsiest of all. There is no camaraderie in the battle. Each old person fights their own fight, alone against their body. There is no happy ending. No hope that if only you do this right you will be cured and go on to the wonderful rest of your life. No dream for a better life for your children because of your courage and sacrifice. No prayer that if this all goes well one will spare masses of people similar travesties. What the old look forward to is what horror will be next. Will I have a stroke tomorrow? How much longer do I have before the last bit of my vision goes dark? Have I put the last ever morsel of food in my mouth under my own power? Will the Depends become daily wear, rather than an occasional need? Will next week finally be when I leave my home for an unfamiliar room and the company of strangers? Which friend, of the few left, will leave this life next? Will I die while I am still able to recognize and say goodbye to my loved ones? And perhaps that is the happy ending the elderly hope for. And there is nothing they can do or not do to assure it.
Old age is claustrophobic. And my mother is one of the lucky ones. She still lives in her home. She is not confined to a bed. But her world is shrinking, nevertheless. Her eyes are extremely sensitive to bright light, so she can’t look out the window or be outside when it is sunny. But when it is gray out, it is too dark to see. She doesn’t (or shouldn’t) go outside the house by herself. If she falls, and the risk of that is great, her bones will break and they can’t be fixed. She is on medication that keeps her heart working, but if she hits her head her brain would bleed and not stop.
She is completely dependent on others to get her away from the house, to choose the groceries she wants, to remind her of things she has forgotten. Books are no longer accessible to her except on tape from the Library for the Blind, played on a special player that can be slowed down and easily backed up so she can listen to a phrase or sentence over and over until she understands the words or gives up. And whether her worn out ears can understand at all depends on the voice of the reader. Listening is exhausting, so she does so in small amounts. When she turns it back on, she has forgotten much of what has gone before.
She reads the newspaper with a magnifying glass, very slowly and a bit at a time. She listens to the TV news, but doesn’t understand most of the words. She doesn’t know what is on her dinner plate until she puts the food in her mouth or I tell her. She can’t see to write letters, though she continues to try and sometimes she asks me to type them. She hates being dependent and resists asking for help, struggling through doing things herself, even though it exhausts her. She is not open to some of the technology that might make her life better, or even suggestions for household organization. She wants her familiar, even if it’s no longer working.
Like all important causes of justice, the country is slow to come around to rights for the elderly, either socially or through legislation. Historically we have not honored our old. We put them in facilities－some better than others, some abysmal－because we don’t know what else to do. We shun them because we don’t know how to interact. Because to really see them is to see our own future. Our laws discriminate against them by failing to grasp their needs; failing to understand the reality of their living; failing to comprehend that the right to die with dignity intact is reverent, not barbaric; failing to imagine into being a different future for our elders, for ourselves. Again, my mother is lucky. She has the financial means to provide for herself and children who are able and willing to physically help her navigate the fast slide down the mountain. And still her courage to keep going astounds me. I cannot imagine how the poor and the alone manage the last life phase.
Like all causes for justice, though, there is strength in numbers. The baby boomers are coming. Our courage is needed, right now, to make change happen for ourselves and for those who come after us. The first step is not to be afraid to look ahead. When it comes, it will be to late. And it will come whether we are looking or not.