My next big design project?

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A photo I took of my mom, Elizabeth Shapiro, at age 89, during a visit to the Getty Center.

My mother occasionally mentioned that she escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria on a faked domestic servant visa. Once in a while, she reminisced about the night in 1940 when she returned to her London flat after the theater and found a piece of bombshell in her bed. Every so often, she’d tell us that the troop transport ship that brought her from England to America in 1943 was firebombed, and she survived. She was a heavy smoker, ate everything now considered bad for you, rarely saw doctors, and never exercised (besides housework and gardening and raising three children). I don’t remember her ever spending a day sick in bed.

She had nine lives, all right. Until she entered her mid-80s. Then things started to fall apart.

Like many of her generation, Mom had no template for her final years. Her parents, Holocaust survivors, died in their 70s.

Little by little, as is normal, her body declined. Not everything she said or did made perfect sense any more. Her eyesight was failing. She couldn’t do the big Sunday crossword puzzles in 15 minutes. Or knit the elaborate sweaters she loved to make. She wasn’t eating well. I don’t call tea and crackers lunch, but she did. She was literally shrinking. I knew she needed help, but she wouldn’t admit it. Even after visits by a geriatric care manager — she hated that term and I ended up referring to the person as a “senior living advisor” — Mom wouldn’t consider having help at home or moving to a senior apartment.

She was in denial.

She ignored the advice to wear a medical alert button, get a grab bar installed in the shower, and get rid of those slippery area rugs. She still saw herself, I guess, as that invincible WWII-era survivor.

Just as predicted, the rest is history. A nightmare history. A fall, the emergency room, intensive care, rehab in a nursing home. And then the first decent available assisted living facility her children could find, a place geared to a disabled population — a far cry from the Santa Monica beachfront “active senior communities” we’d looked at before (and she rejected, of course). She lived in that facility for three years, using a walker or cane and regaining some of her capacities. Having her with us for three more years was a gift, but not one she always seemed to appreciate herself. Ultimately, as the photo above shows, she became one of the sharpest and most mobile residents there.

Mom’s physical needs were taken care of. It was a decent, clean place. She got three meals a day, her medication delivered, assistance with bathing. But her spiritual and social needs? Gornisht. She had nothing in common with the people at her lunch table, some of whom were nonverbal.

Her story is so typical.

Worried, I began reading books about “sacred aging,” which are mostly anthologies of essays by clergypersons and social workers. Almost all the stories are the same: “We had to make a decision of how to take care of Mom or Dad — it’s usually Mom — after a crisis.” The decisions are difficult and there’s never a perfect choice. You could cry over the words of a minister trying to figure out how to take care of his frail, confused parent.

Then there are the equally poignant words of this 13-year-old: “I’m donating some of my bat mitzvah money to support an organization that helps older people who want to stay in their own homes but need help doing day-to-day activities. I chose this organization because my grandmother, who was a big part of my life, did not want to leave her home. When she could no longer live alone, she went into an assisted living facility. Even though she was close to her family there, she was very unhappy.”

We baby boomers are not big on being unhappy.

Every marketer, every corporation, knows that. Our demographic is courted by the financial services, real estate, pharmaceutical, insurance, and cosmetic surgery industries. If I get one more solicitation from the AARP or a hearing-aid company I’m gonna scream. If I didn’t zoom through the commercial breaks during late-night Law and Order reruns, I could learn all about Alzheimer’s medications — after Dennis Hopper reminds me to prepare for my senior years with Ameriprise Financial. With rock anthems of the Sixties playing in the background.

Am I in denial, too?

Please, no. Now that I have my mother’s last ten years as a template, I know what not to do.

Fifteen percent of the American population is over 65. That’s 47.8 million people. The fastest-growing population segment is over 75. Thanks to medical technology, today’s seniors, as well as we baby boomers, are and will be the healthiest, longest-living, most mobile, most affluent bunch of older adults who ever lived.

Right now, my only ‘symptoms’ are forgetting a word now and then, and not being able to play tennis (the knees!). I don’t have fantasies about being a heroic survivor, but I am worried about one thing: When I need assistance with living, what kind of places will be available that will support and nurture me, not just feed me and roll the medication cart into my room? I doubt that I’d be happy for even one day, much less three years, at any place that’s even remotely affordable.

When I start to envision how I’d like to live in my 80s and beyond, my mind goes back to a piece I read in college by the socialist-activist Michael Harrington. It was called something like, “The Theory of Non-Productive Work.” He theorized that by the year 2000 all labor would be done by machines; so we’d be paid for doing what we like. It could be stamp collecting, walking on the beach, bird watching. Or perhaps my passions, gardening and playing percussion.

Harrington was wrong. His utopia did not come about by the year 2000. And it hasn’t come about yet. But it sounds like a good paradigm for a senior community in the year 2030. One built on the model of, say, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshires (only with a nursing staff, just in case). Ah, get up in the morning, a stroll on the grounds, even with cane or walker or wheelchair. Meditation, then breakfast in the sunny dining room with like-minded individuals. A buffet with whole grains, just-hatched eggs, fresh fruit. Yoga. Swimming in the heated pool — even if I have to be lowered into the water by hydraulic lift. Gardening and art. A music jam, of course.

I looks like making that happen might have to be my last big design project.

The scholar and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “While we do not define old age as a second childhood, some of the programs we devise are highly effective in helping the aged become children. After all, to be retired does not mean to be retarded.”

Between meals, most residents at the assisted living places I’ve visited stay in their rooms and watch TV. A few come down to play bingo or listen to the pianist tinkling out hits of the 1940s and ’50s. Many regress to a second toddlerhood, become reliant on the staff, complain, throw tantrums. At one of the best places in affluent Westchester County, New York, it’s more or less the same, but in prettier surroundings, with better food. Even there, some residents have the aimless look of those waiting to die, or at least waiting for their children to visit on weekends.

During one of those visits with Mom, I did the Five Wishes health care directive with her and learned what medical services she wanted and how she wanted to be treated when she was dying… “drifting away peacefully, with no tubes, no life support, Mozart playing in the background.” (It’s not easy to ask those questions, and getting those things to happen when medical technology is pushing in the opposite direction is another challenge — and the subject for another time.) Five Wishes is a valuable resource. Yet, like so much material related to the elderly, it is about dying. There’s no shortage of resources on preparing families for the decline and death of loved ones.

What about living?

Okay. Here’s the resolution I’m developing as I write this: I’m going to do my own five wishes, wishes for LIFE. I will sit down one day (soon) and answer these questions:

  1. In what part of the country do I want to spend my last years? Here on the East Coast? Back in California? Southern, Northern?
  2. In what kind of place?
  3. What kinds of things do I realistically envision myself doing there?
  4. What will make me as content and joyful as possible?
  5. How much will all this cost? How will I make/save enough money? And when do I have to sign on the dotted line to make sure it will happen?

: : :

The poet Robert Browning wrote: “Grow old with me. The best is yet to be.”

I hope that’s true. And I hope I can make it happen.
How about you?

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