In about six weeks, I'm going to be hitting the age 50 milestone. This post is not whining about that. I actually am not especially bothered by the idea of being 50; despite the inconvenience of things like reading glasses and that nagging 10 pounds that won't go away and possible hearing aids (bad, bad heredity, unfortunately), I don't feel too much different than I did at age 30.
However, a couple of things I've read recently have made me think about what is (probably) coming down the line in my life - not in the next year, maybe not even in the next 10 years, but eventually, if I live long enough. Those two converging works are The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks and an unpublished memoir manuscript I am reading for the sister of a friend.
I certainly didn't go into reading The Notebook expecting to start thinking about aging. To be honest, I wanted to read it as "market research" to give me an idea of what kind of romantic books (beyond "romance novels") are popular with readers. (And to keep being honest, I didn't particularly care for this book. If you are interested, there will be a brief explanation of why at the end of this post.)
Not to give away any plot points, but The Notebook is a story within a story, about the same people at two different points in their lives. One story is about the rekindling of their teen romance when they are in their late 20s/early 30s; the other is about their lives now that they are living in a senior care facility of some kind. Allie, the woman in the story, has Alzheimer's disease to the point that she rarely recognizes her husband, Noah, the love of her life. Noah, however, remains devoted to her, and in fact, courts her so she will fall in love with him each day after forgetting him from the day before.
I'm not going to say much about the second book, since I don't have permission from the author to talk about it. It is the story of the struggles a family faced when they had to deal with their aging father's dementia by committing him to senior care against his will when he was clearly unable to take care of himself any longer but wouldn't admit it. It's a very compelling story, and I hope the author will be able to get her story out for the public to read someday in the future.
Although we don't really want to think about it, as we get older, chances are that we are going to be faced with substantial loss. For some of us, as in The Notebook, that loss may be of our most significant human relationship, either through death or to dementia. For others, it may be loss of freedom and control of our own destiny, as in the manuscript. For some, it may be both.
I was thinking after reading The Notebook how sad it would be to lose all the memories built up during the years of a relationship (which is, of course, why there was a notebook in the first place). I suppose you wouldn't really lose your own memories of the relationship if it was the partner who suffered the dementia, but it seems to me some of the value in memories is their sharedness. I think about some of the things that have happened in the 23 years I've been married, like the year we spent together in graduate school in Kansas, or building our house, or the birth of our kids. Of course, we both have our personal memories of those things, but there are certain elements that have become so intertwined that the story doesn't seem complete unless both sides are told. Even the telling of the story is often intertwined. How lonely would it be to have one piece of that story gradually disappear so that there's only a ghost of it left?
To lose one's partner to dementia would certainly be lonely, but the manuscript tells a story that is sadder, in a way. The father in the story has always been a very independent, resourceful, in-charge kind of man; as he grows older, however, he begins to do things (like get lost while driving) that are dangerous to himself and to others. His children have to wrest away from him all the trappings of independent life - his car, his house, his ability to come and go as he pleases. (Of course, this process is agonizing for them as well.) I'm not completely finished with the manuscript yet, but I know from talking to my friend that the process was very painful for all of them. Think about it; most of us are so used to being able to direct our own daily affairs that it would be incredibly frustrating to have that taken away. In some ways, it would be to lose one's very self.
I think about my grandfather who recently died. He stayed in his own home until the end and died in his own bed, which I imagine most of us would aspire to. However, I've always told people he was able to do that because his children were all close by and worked together to make it possible for him to have that life. The manuscript author pointed out something else that is necessary: the willingness to accept the help one needs. That's something her father was not willing to admit, and that's part of what made the process for him so difficult. I also now believe that's one reason Grandpa was able to do what he did. Even if it meant losing his dignity as the "father," he was willing to pay that cost to be able to stay home. I don't know that you can have both dignity AND self-determination. In all probability, you can't have either. Getting old sucks.
As I transition into my "senior years" (I actually joined AARP the other day so we could get the discounts on hotels on our recent family trip, ha ha), I'm not going to dwell on getting old. But I think it is important to do two things to get ready for what could be coming: 1) get those memories down in tangible form somewhere (like Grandma's memory book from my earlier post), and 2) develop the willingness to recognize when I need help and to be able to swallow my pride to accept it.
As promised, a brief review of The Notebook: For all the pathos of the situation, I didn't really develop any emotional connection with any of the characters. There were also a number of things Sparks did that I see over and over labeled as characteristics of weak writing: head-hopping and "telling" rather than "showing," among others. Finally, Sparks' techniques for trying to build suspense just drove me nuts. The end of the book was especially frustrating. Did Noah die, or not?