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Lately, I’ve become intensely aware of the way age is changing. Fifty doesn’t mean what it once did, and neither does 90. There is a profound shift in our thinking about the span of our lives, with dramatic, practical implications. And like so much of the change in the world now, this is happening faster than we can process it in real time.

Associations and expectations about “youth,” “middle age,” and “old age” that held for generations have simply fallen away. Age has become a far more fluid thing, relative from life to life. This is fascinating.

And like all significant progress, this has an upside and a downside. Acting and feeling younger longer is a kind of affirmation of an American inclination to see ourselves as self-made and forever beating the odds. We celebrate the 70-year-old triathlete, the 80-year-old tennis player. I’m part of this too.

Estelle Gross

As I approached 50, I took up a serious yoga practice and can honestly say that I have never been stronger than I am now. But, in more reflective moments, I know that I also want to embrace the softness, the peace with imperfection, and the paradoxical possibility of gaining from loss that comes naturally in this time of life. I know that there is a fine line between denial and opening to age with wisdom and grace.

Jane Gross has thought about these things for years, as a human being and a journalist, and as creator of The New Old Age blog at The New York Times. This popular blog grew out of her experiences on the “far shore of caregiving,” at the far reaches of her mother Estelle’s old age. As Estelle began a steep but incremental decline after her mid-80s, she described the modern change of aging more darkly: “We live too long, and die too slowly.”

Beyond the races we can still run, the vacations we can take, and the new careers we can begin, there is, as Jane Gross puts it, an in-between time that is new in human experience — a period that may span decades, she says bluntly, “between fine and dead.”

The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua HeschelThis conversation is full of simple, hard truths stated clearly. It is an experience of how the naming of hard truths can in itself bring relief. The beginning of wisdom, after all, is facing reality. One statistically borne reality is that even our 21st-century bodies start to fail by our mid-80s, if cancer hasn’t suddenly stopped them in what we now consider the prime of life of 50 or 60.

Jane Gross’s story, and that of her mother, is a story of our time. After a long vigorous, independent life, and a thriving widowhood, “she was fine and then all of a sudden in a hundred small ways, none of which were going to kill her, not fine.” It was a roller coaster ride of debilitation, illness, decline, and panic with no end in sight.

Here again, her honesty is refreshing. She did not have a close relationship with her mother. She did not, she confesses, “race to the loving caregiver’s role with an open heart.” Like many, many people, she at first only accepted that she was caught between a rock and a hard place. She could buckle up or bolt, and the latter was not acceptable. In the end, after much muddling and many mistakes she says, it yielded unexpected healing. It became an occasion for family repair.

Some of her most important pointers are also the simplest. The elderly, as she’s experienced it, want to have conversations about this before their children are comfortable. Meet your parents there, she says. Talk, and listen, early. And this: every piece of this complex chapter of life doesn’t need every sibling to play every role. Figure out what each of you is best at and forgive yourselves and each other for not rising equally to every challenge.

I’ll close here as we close the show, with a passage from Jane Gross’s book, A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves. A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Aging Parents and Ourselves by Jane GrossHer memoir is full of practical advice. It is a dispassionate look at an ordinary piece of life that, like death, we are reluctant to look full in the face. It is a chronicle of redemption that emerges in spite and because of muddle and mistakes. But isn’t all of life really like that?

“I keep saying that this experience can become something other than desperate and bleak, if you let it. It really is a choice. We all know grown children who have bolted when the moment arrived. But imagining running away doesn’t make you a bad person. I fantasized, usually in the hypnagogic space between sleeping and waking, facing another day of ignorance and exhaustion, about pointing the car west and driving, driving, driving. I’m glad that I didn’t, because instead I learned what I was made of; I found my better self. I found my mother. I found my brother. But all of that came later.”


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12 Comments

I am speechless...this interview is amazing and right now it feels like it has opened doors that I didn't realize were closed. As a regular listener (who happens to be agnostic) I truly appreciate the different ideas, beliefs, and spins that this show introduces to my life and society on a whole. Thank you!

There is more than just numbers in age and aging.

I listened to the podcast of this show last night--sobering. I have an 84-year-old mother who is entering the old-old stage. And a step-father who is in it that stage, with low quality of life. Not what I want for myself. But he was one who was revived through antibiotics when he got pneumonia--the condition I heard a doctor call "the old man's friend." No more. The costs, financial, spiritual, and psychological of this prolonged stage are high already and will soon be staggering. I appreciate the candor, will reflect long on the meaning.

This was a welcomed segment for me as I struggle thru the process of dealing with care for my grandmother's youngest brother.  At 87 he has Alzheimers and severely painful degenerative  osteoarthritis in his lower spine.  Eighteen months ago I discovered his live-in caregivers being grossly negligent and selling his narcotics when I went to visit, after not having seen him for 25 years.  Once you know a travesty like this is happening, you cannot turn a blind eye.  I ended up bringing him and his maniacal monster sized German Shepherd to live with me in MN.  The oddyssey that has ensued has challenged the very fiber of my being and made me reflect on what will become of me.  I am 51 and single in a place where it is hard to develop a community to take the place of family, let alone find a partner. Being the only child of an only child and having no family or children is sobering when you have a clear idea of what aging looks like for so many and what might lay ahead.  I and my similarly independant and far flung friends often muse about where we shall go at some point to live communally and look after one another.....

I want to read Jane's book. I could have written this, it so speaks to my own experience from 2000-2010. The 10 years after my father died, and I became my mother's care-giver - me - the one named as the "antagonistic" one...and also a care giver for my developmentally disabled older brother. It was a long, rough, exhausting journey - yet, a healing one as well, for both of us. It is amazing the stories we all share in our silence. Mom passed last Nov at 94.

I appreciate the practicallity of this pod cast. I did miss the value of the elderly in our society. Unlike the speeker, I did grow up with my grandmother and other elderly people of value around me. People who we continued to value, even as their apparent "worth" was in decline.
These people are our foundation! They deserve respect!
I hate to think that Jane Gross is considered and "expert" in the field of the elderly. She communicates some very important issues, but forgets the individual and the relationships that we should treasure. Only from a place of love, respect and value can a child help to make the important decisions.

As the author of "A Bittersweet Season,'' and hugely honored to be a guest of Krista's, I want to thank all those who listened, commented, and said such kind things. I hope our conversation was both helpful and consoling to you, and that those who haven't will both read the book and chime in on my facebook fan page, about the book itself and other related topics. https://www.facebook.com/JaneG.... Peace to all of you. ----- Jane Gross  

Jane, the pleasure is all ours and we look forward to continuing this conversation with our audience. Editing and approving all the wonderful comments and personal stories in response to the show has been eye-opening for our staff. Many thanks.

forgive me for being such a luddite, but i can't figure out how to answer some of the comments on the main "being'' FB page. besides thanks everyone i also would like to suggest to erica, whose parents are caring for their aged parents but resistant to reading "bittersweet'' that she could very subtly pass along what she is reading and thinking, to both generations and thus be a comfort to them all. i'm deeply touched by her concern for them and hope she knows what there are many grandchildren, utterly on their own as caretakers or as observers to what is happening in their family, who carry, or help carry, this  burden and often find themselves hugely enriched by the experience. ---- jane gross

Read the book and loved it!  Full of poignant moments, but not sappily so and, more importantly, very much grounded in reality and facts.  Everyone who faces the possibility of caring for a parent should, must read this book!  We also need to see more of these types of blogs, books, interviews, discussions about the realities of aging:  the good, the bad, and the truly ugly.