Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Travel From Senior to Elderly

When I turned 60, I did not feel like I was entering the senior citizen level of my life. That same year, my Father turned 90. He had just stopped playing golf a year or two before. He stopped driving last year on his own when he came to the conclusion he was no longer sure of himself. He has been a powerful role model in my family. As he grew older, he became proud and vocal of his advancing age. He loved asking people to guess how old he was so he could tell them he was in his 90's.

Senior is a state of mind. One can be a senior and still have the vitality, drive, and mental acuity of someone in their middle years. You see them everywhere. They are me.  They are traveling south for the winter. They are engaged in politics. They are maintaining friendships and meeting for morning coffee or lunch. Some say the 60's are the new 40's. I don't know that I would go that far, but I do know that the 60's of my grandparent’s era are not the 60's I am currently experiencing.

But suddenly, something called elderly sneaks up on you. That body starts failing you in some very cruel ways, even if you managed to be fit the majority of your life. You can see it in the way the person moves. It takes longer to explain something that was easy to comprehend before. Names and relationships escape from memory. Things that were important aren't anymore and minor things become obsessions. Anger appears to compensate for confusion. No driving outside of the city limits. An absolute refusal to accept the fact that staying in a house with multiple levels and steps is just not accessible or safe any longer.

Elderly has become my father. I knew his life was advancing; after all, he is 92. But it kind of sneaked up on me until it exploded into full blown reality this month. This is a man who still played in a men's pfeifer card club and delighted in taking all their quarters. He went out to lunch every day with his wife. They shopped together, went every where together. The real change was that now she was the primary driver.  Granted, he was moving slower, but he was still participating in life.

The first subtle hint was when his older brother died two years ago and he felt afraid to leave home to go to his funeral in Moorhead, MN. Then, after many years of spending Christmas in Sioux Falls, he became afraid and didn't want to leave his home, even though I would drive to Mankato to pick them up and take them home again. His younger brother died in January and all of a sudden, I think he realized he was next and that death was coming for him. He said he was now alone. He was the last one still standing in his immediate family. He started to retreat into himself.

He got sick this month. He has never been seriously sick.  My step mother couldn't wake him one morning. Scary, because he was always up early to eat his breakfast and read the paper. The emergency room. Pneumonia and congestive heart failure was the diagnosis. That event just seems to cement what he feels is the end.

It is interesting how family members' roles change as age advances. Once a caregiver now becomes the recipient of care by one's child. I get the sense he has given up. He doesn't want to play cards anymore. He doesn't want to leave the house. He just wants to sleep. He sees no reason in going to the doctor and he rages over all those pills he suddenly has to take each day. He looked at me yesterday and said, I am not going to live until I am 100, am I? He so wanted to do that and I had to say, no Dad, I don't think you will meet that milestone. He is withdrawing from his life. 

My Dad has been blessed with a good life. He survived the Pacific in World War II and came home with a rank of Captain. He arrived home 5 years later shoving what he says was a horrible time in his life deep inside him. He got married, got his Masters and became a high school principal. Although he lost his first wife, my mother, to cancer when she was only 57, he found love and companionship again and they have enjoyed a wonderful 25 senior years together. His faith has been with him all his life and will be with him until the end.

One of the sadness and heartbreaking things that has occurred in his passage to elderly is his sudden flashback to the war. He has started to talk about it a bit, but I know that it is painful for him. He says he lost so many good men and friends. He questions why God spared his life and hopes and prays God will forgive him for the the things they had to do in the war. It breaks my heart. A good and honorable man who in the twilight of his life now seems to remember the darkest part of his life.

I am sadly resolved to this passage in my life. I pray the end of his life does not diminish how he has lived his life. I pray he does not suffer.  I will be so sad when he leaves us, but I will celebrate his life and all that he was to his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. He has touched many young people's lives all those years he was a teacher and principal. His death when it comes will be a celebration of who he was.

What more can you ask as you travel from youth, to adult; to senior, to elderly. A life well lived.


  1. Your blog is a lovely tribute to your father,a man to be admired and celebrated. My thoughts and prayers are with you both.

  2. What a wonderful blog and celebration of his life. I miss you guys and my thoughts and prayers are with your family.

  3. I hate seeing then become ghosts of the people they once were--withdrawn, lethargic, no spark, no hope, maybe just overcome with fear of new infections, betrayal by often-lousy docs with no time to really see ...
    Heartbreaking to see the other parent trying so hard to help get their spouse back...