Over the past five years, I’ve become (at times, depending on the state of my mother’s health), a long distance caretaker. Fortunately, several years ago on the advice of a friend, I connected my mother with a geriatric-care manager, a social worker who specializes in working with senior citizens and who is based in the Cleveland, Ohio area, where my mother lives. In addition to Mom’s care manager, my mother has a larger web of support, including a paid aide who checks on her three or four mornings a week, and all the services and staff of the independent living center where my mother moved last fall.
Navigating the health care system has taught me one thing in particular; the ‘squeaky wheel’ gets the grease. When my mother was in rehab, dependent on nurses and aides after she fell and fractured her femur, I saw the range of care provided by the center staff, which ranged from excellent to non-existent. As my brothers and I have managed a series of crises I’ve often wondered, who, if anyone, will look out for me when I get old
Last night I attended the monthly gathering of Living Soulfully, a group of men connected with Easton Mountain, a retreat center for gay men located about 45 minutes north of Albany, in Upstate New York. This month’s topic focused on aging, and visioning our lives over the next 10, 15, or 20 years. A teacher and writer named Dave Nimmons, who has explored the power and potential of gay men to form community and support each other in a series of books and through his workshops, facilitated the discussion. Now Nimmons is exploring how gay men in middle age –- roughly between 40 and 65 –- will manage the transition to old age. Many of us are single, live alone, and don’t have children or family members who are likely to serve as our caretakers.
Sitting in the meeting, I found it difficult to visualize the next 15 or 20 years of my life. The exercise –- sitting back and thinking as to how I might live in my mid-60s, or when I’m pushing 70, made me squirm. How long can I redefine aging, avoid playing by the rules, and act younger than society seems to think I should? Despite my effort to hold body and soul together, despite regular gym attendance and a determination to keep active, I don’t have the energy I had at 35. (I also don’t have the same level of angst or neurosis, so there’s a trade-off I’m OK with for now). But it does seem that going beyond middle age and getting old inevitably means slowing down, and I’m not ready to admit defeat, and to think of my life getting smaller, more constricted.
In listening to the conversation in the room, it became clear that I was not the only gay man thinking, (or trying not to think about) these issues; of what the next phase of my life will look like, and of how I can l maintain both my independence and a sense of community and connection as I grow older. I can envision an enjoyable retirement if I remain healthy and active, but I know that my health will give out eventually –- it’s just a question of when Father Time points out the lateness of the hour.
A range of possibilities were discussed, from staying in one’s own home and living alone with some degree of support to living in some form of community, which might consist of only gay men, of gay men and lesbians, or of both straight and gay men and women. Another option could include intergenerational communities that bring young and old together, with children and teenagers.
We didn’t come to group consensus, or find any easy answers. For me personally, I think the answer lies in developing more close relationships, of building up my friend network. I can’t assume the friends I currently have or the ones I will make in the future –- I’m determined to avoid the social isolation that is a big part of growing old for many seniors, gay or straight –- will take care of me, but I’ve seen several examples of friends and neighbors who have stepped forward to help others.
In my mother’s case, a neighbor, more of an acquaintance than a friend, helped my mother manage several health scares before Mom moved into independent living. In the case of my Aunt Edythe, a fiercely independent woman with few friends and no social network, a retired man who lived across the hall and his somewhat younger wife enabled Edythe to live in her own apartment till just a week or two before she died.
In some ways, my aunt and my mother were lucky –- they got support when they needed it. Watching them, and the aging process that has already taken most of my elders, reminds me that I need to think about the future, and start to make plans for life at 65, 70, or 75.
While having dinner with a friend last year, (who is only 51), she said, “I can see the end from here.” My friend has a husband, a young daughter, and more of a family support system than I have. I’m also five years older than her. I can see the end, too, but so far, I’ve tried not to look.
Maybe it’s time that I noticed just how far -- or how near -- old age is, and to prepare for it; it’s coming whether I’m ready or not.
Judah Leblang is a writer, teacher and storyteller in Boston. He is reading two pieces from his new work at the Four Stories (free) series event on June 11 at 6:00 PM at the Middlesex Lounge in Central Square, Cambridge. For more info, please go to http://www.fourstories.org/events-upcoming.html or call 617-466-9637.