What to Do
with Aging Parents?
In some societies (for example, among the Ache Indians of South America and the Inuit of the Arctic) sick, elderly people with little apparent chance of recovery are left to die or are killed outright. In America, many are left to the care of private companies and essentially forgotten (though, perhaps, with a guilty conscience) by their children.
What can you do about this? Well, at this point I won’t make any case for what you ought to do with your ailing, aging parents. I haven’t had to contend with this issue quite yet, and if I must someday I think the most difficult aspect of it for me will be deciding on what I value most.
Specifically, is it more important to me that I act as the caretaker of my parents, or that I fully focus on living as I desire to? The question becomes more difficult if “living as I desire to” entails a lot of traveling, being outside, and helping other people, and easier if it simply means sitting in my rocking chair and drinking beer all day (though I have a feeling it’d be easier to reconcile the former with being a caretaker than the latter).
The staunch individualism- that is, the emphasis on a single person “making a life for himself” and pulling himself up by his bootstraps regardless of what the other people around him do- of American society is, at times, disappointing.
However, it isn’t so easily gotten away from—particularly with regards to family. Taking care of your parents probably entails retaining the lifestyle they have become so ridiculously used to over the years, insofar as their remaining abilities allow them to continue that lifestyle.
Quite frankly, that doesn’t sound too peachy to me. Surely a multitude of children have views and lifestyle preferences that dissent from those introduced to them by their parents. Do you really think such a child (well, now an adult-child in this case) would want to drop the lifestyle they’ve always dreamed of to return to what they were subjected to for 18+ years in childhood?
Maybe you climb mountains everyday, and you must now spend your days in an air conditioned house with TVs constantly blasting reruns of Law and Order, a fridge filled with life-threatening food, and perhaps a dog who has always had bad intentions out for you. In your mountaineering career these are precisely the things you have gotten away from, but now you must go back to them.
It sounds selfish, I know, to take this perspective, and the overall premise of this piece may sound just as cold and callous. For those who do take up the challenge of becoming full-time caretakers, I suspect it is challenging indeed.
Beyond that, I will not comment further on what you should do as the child of aging people.
What to Do with an Aging Self?
Instead, the idea I will entertain to you is this: do your best to be an aging person worth keeping alive. In other words, be an awesome old person.
What do I mean by that? Imagine yourself at the age of 70. What do you want to have accomplished by then? What skills would you like to still have? What might you want to dedicate your life to at that point? If it’s staring into a screen all day from your rocking chair, you might have some issues to work out with yourself.
Think about what sort of an awesome person you’d like to become. Perhaps you want to ride a bicycle across America, travel the world, run ultramarathons, and hike the Appalachian Trail. Maybe you want to write books and give speeches that inspire people. Maybe you want to invent something or take charge of a company that improves the quality of life for humanity. Maybe you want to do all of those things, which means you’ve probably set quite high standards for yourself. A job well done (so far!), my friend.
But it’s not just about what you want to do- you want to be something you define as awesome and admirable. You want to be kind and useful to other people. You want to be joyful about being alive. You want to challenge yourself constantly. You want to be a critical and clear thinker who has interesting thoughts swimming around in her head all day. You want to be the darndest most irresistible lover you could imagine. Being awesome in the first place is generally what leads you to do awesome things, correct?
Consider, now, that you could take all these past experiences and all these traits into old age. Do you think that you’ll be so easily thrown away by society? Do you think the question will even come up, since you’ll be so driven to keep living actively and fully everyday? When you have years of skills, knowledge, experience, and wisdom unrivaled by most, how could you not be considered valuable (if to no one else, at least to yourself) if you’re willing to continue expressing all those things?
Age doesn’t equate to wisdom, but that doesn’t mean you can’t become wiser as you get older. If you intend to do so and you aren’t totally arrogant about it, you probably will do so.
This is where the coldness and callousness comes in. I know, it sounds like I am suggesting that, based on ability, some lives are more valuable than others. I will say that I do not believe this because, (1), from an objective standpoint, human beings have the potential to improve, and also to contribute even if they could be called generally “worthless”; and (2), from a subjective standpoint, each person is equally a part of collective consciousness (but I won’t dive into that here; read some of my articles on subjective reality to learn more about that).
What I mean to contend with here is the reality that elderly people who are perceived as irreversibly worthless are sometimes- if not often- left for dead. I’m not saying they should be: I’m saying they are. Maybe it’s not from yours, but from my spot on the map that’s pretty darn clear. It’s not something I suggest you fear, but rather to simply keep in mind as you progress through life.
To carry on with keeping fit into old age, you must, of course, attend to yourself physiologically as well. Keep moving. Don’t ever stop moving for too long. As you age your body will have more difficulty dealing with things it isn’t subjected to often, and basic movement certainly is no exception (hello, wheelchairs and walkers).
If you have physical weaknesses now, fix them now. Waiting will only make healing your body more difficult.
Don’t eat those life threatening foods. If you suspect certain foods may be degrading to your brain and body (perhaps such as sugar and MSG), stop eating them.
While we can’t always be sure of the causes, I’d like to think that people can reduce their chances of developing non-communicable conditions like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. If you wouldn’t put it in the body of someone you want to stay alive for a hundred years, and you don’t hate yourself, why would you put it in your own body (I know, I know- because food addictions and habits and ignorance and whatnot)?
But Can We Prevent the Effects of Aging?
As I subtly just stated, I recognize that it may not be within our means to prevent or postpone these conditions- at least, not by lifestyle alone. And if it is, we may not quite know how.
I know that being wise and purpose-driven may very well have nothing at all to do with age-extension. However, I do like to think that health and wellness in one aspect of life tends to coincide with health in other aspects of life—specifically, that mental, emotional, and spiritual (if you like) wellness are more likely to coexist with physical health than with physical illness, and physical health (barring accidents) generally means a longer lifespan.
Of course, this is not to deny the existence of fat, drunken geniuses nor of star athletes who are violent, intellectual buffoons. But I think that the bulk of us we can more readily say that the body is consciousness and/or that consciousness is the body. The body arises within consciousness (subjective reality) or consciousness arises in the body (objective reality). Whichever of these two perspectives you take, I assert that it would be more accurate than believing in the separateness of mind and matter (sorry Descartes).
That being said, attaining old age in itself is not the point of all this; though, in a world where you are expected to reach the age of 70 you might as well act and think like you will.
What my point is, as usual, is to encourage you to grow- to learn more about this world, to develop skills, to go on adventures of a lifetime, and to be as you see fit. If you put the consideration of non-communicable disease aside for a moment, it makes sense that preparing to be an awesome old person roughly equates to making yourself more awesome right now, so it is only a benefit to yourself to do so.
If that’s hard to wrap your head around, look at it this way: strive to do (and be!) now whatever will cause you to look back on your life and smile. Say, for instance, that this smile comes from you challenging yourself. Providing these challenges aren’t detrimental to your well-being and you escape major accidents, don’t you think that challenging yourself relentlessly year after year may someday produce an awesome old person (a wise one, if not an objectively successful one)? I’d sure like to think so.
And if that doesn’t make sense, just remember that you’re always aging, and you will be older in the next moment than you are right now. To that effect you should always see yourself as an aging person-- yes?
To bring back the consideration of non-communicable disease, keep in mind that even if such a condition causes your death, it may not show itself much until the last five years of your life (yes, I know this is not the case with everyone). So if you live to 80, you should be going pretty strong until you’re 75. I would hope, then, that you see some worth in preparing to live actively up to that point.
Also consider the premise of medicinal and technological advances. Not as many people reached their 70s, 80s, and beyond as they do now. According to Jared Diamond (in The World Until Yesterday), rural New Guineans consider 50 to be pretty darn old. When he visited at the age of 46, they called him “half-dead” and assigned a boy to walk beside him constantly, just in case.
Diamond goes on to say that “…’Old age’ has to be defined by the standards of the local society, not by some arbitrary universal year count.” In other words, the definition of “old” is relative.
To elaborate, you could go so far as to say that you’re old when you feel old- which, in my teenage years, I have felt rather expired, depressed, hopeless, and bitter all at once at least a few times. But, that definition is tricky because you can then return to feeling and thus being young, as I have.
Overall, I would think the term “old” is best reserved for a person who has perceivably and irreversibly declined both physically and mentally over time. When you consider that head trauma tends to speed up the aging process the definition becomes more complicated to settle, as do currently-unknown possibilities of decline-reversal (as demonstrated by Dr. Mark Gordon, we do indeed know that some of the effects of head trauma- particularly, the reduction of testosterone production- can be reversed). But, defining “old” is not my point here, and I am in no position of authority to declare this definition anyway, so I will return to the point.
If the human lifespan has been extended already, is it not possible that we can extend it further? There certainly are people working toward this (Aubrey de Grey, perhaps most prominently). What if instead of 70, you live until 110? Or even longer?
Imagine that you had 200 relatively-healthy years on this planet. Pretend, for a moment, that you can feel like the average (or better!) 25 year old up until the age of 150; then, from there you degrade as people normally do from 25 to about the age of 100. So, at 200, you’re roughly equal to the current 75 year old. The next 15-25 years or so may or may not be physically tough, as they tend to be at this point. So, you may die as early as 200, or you may keep kicking until 225 (equal to the current 100) or even 245 (equal to the current 120). In a nutshell, you hit 25 and physiologically remain so for 125 years- though you can physically and mentally grow stronger in this time, as usual- and then you age at the same rate people do now until you meet with death.
What the heck would you do with all this time?! For some people, the question is depressing beyond comprehension. You will live through countless wars, see many people you care about die, love and lose, get sick enough times to make a book out of your medical records (25 isn’t perfect, ya know), and be bored out of your brain cells. Overall, you will suffer immensely and die brutally once the time finally comes.
For others, this premise will induce joy and a sense of possibility. Imagine if you had all that time to fine-tune your skills, to take all the time you need with hard problems and the complexities of reality… How much could you accomplish? How much could you contribute to the world? What unheard of extremes of pleasure and pain might you reach? What sort of super-wisdom would you have to impart to others?
Your capacities to express love, feel joy, and appreciate life will be, to say the least, quite deep. Your ability to be aware will be astounding. Your sense of responsibility as a conscious being in this reality will be, well, quite high. What sort of power might you have, and what might you do with that power?
Perhaps my viewpoint is skewed as a young person, but I see no reason to get bent out of shape about aging. Time is precious, and if I potentially will get to live through more of it I can choose to either value time less or to revere it as a gift, and use it perhaps more wisely than I could comprehend to do so within a shorter lifespan.
Overall, as long as you create and deliver value to others and love yourself ruthlessly, meaning that you always do your best to be your best, your life, even if not very long, shall be a masterpiece.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday (book)
The Joe Rogan Experience Episode 638, with Aubrey de Grey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeCpHugyI80
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