Early Work Tips
Old and Leading the Way

Ninety

Some good friends, all met through blogging, are filling in for me while I take a two-week sabbatical from Time Goes By. Today’s guest blogger is 90-year-old Leah Aronoff. Here is the short bio she sent to go with this story:

Born 1918, in New York City. Daughter of Russian immigrants. Hunter College graduate (no tuition!). Latch key child, both parents worked in garment industry. Our social life was in the arts and theater.

Grew up, more or less, and married a Cincinnatian, which meant moving to Cincinnati. Fish out of water. Work experience: from NYA to car hop to dental assistant to University of Cincinnati Art Librarian, to faculty member in the Graduate Department of Community Planning, University of Cincinnati.

Retired and stopped smoking at the same time. Two grown (of course) children. Grandcats and granddogs.

Current activities: reading, museums and galleries, politics, theater. Also interested in modern dance, masks, and, in the past, did a lot of spinning, dyeing, weaving.

Trying to deal with a diagnosis of stomach cancer, and not looking forward to a late January operation. I mention this only because I’m trying to find people with a similar experience with whom I can feel free to chat about related issues, and this seems a straw-grasping opportunity.


Being ninety is what others make of you. It is not necessarily what you are. This leaves you free to be whatever you want to be.

Time and timing take on extra significance. You think you did or said something five minutes ago, when actually you did or said it five months ago - or weeks, or years. When the discrepancy is noted, you weakly respond, “Oh, yes,” with an expression on your face that you hope looks less foolish than you feel, or sound.

Mentally, things are just a wee bit worse than they were at 89. Fortunately, the downward progression is gradual for the most part and barely noticed, certainly by the 90-year-old. The drawback? The person who catches one in a memory lapse is likely to say, or think, “What else can you expect of someone that old?”

This 90-year-old feels wistful about the future, which could be next week as well as six months from now. There is a definite uncertainty about just how much future lies ahead.

Some things lose relevance to a greater or lesser degree. Take the AARP publications, for example. For some years you’ve been letting your anger build up at the belief that AARP and its writers have no understanding of the differences between 50 (the age of membership acceptance) and 70 and above. Many over seventy are not only unable to manage the physical accomplishments of their 50-year-old selves, they completely have lost all physical resemblance to the vibrant, slim, full-haired overachievers pictured in AARP publications.

At 90, the sight and contents of these newsletters and magazines cause the reaction, “What the hell does all that have to do with me?”

(I personally believe AARP should split in two and thus be more appropriately able to serve the two separate age groups in every category, including finances and health. For instance, at 50 your financial efforts are certainly more lively than at 70, at which time you are more than likely retired, or unable to work. And how many 50-year-olds are helped by the advice to take their multiple pills in pudding?)

A good part of being what you are at 90 is, as noted, is what others make of you. As described above, according to those younger than you, you are probably dragging a bit mentally. It takes a little longer to get the right words out, but you do eventually manage, either by yourself or with the help of your listeners.

Does this make you more stupid than you were? I don’t know, protestations of my grown children and my younger friends notwithstanding.

Physical incapacities are definitely assumed by everyone in your immediate vicinity. Not necessarily noted, just assumed. That is, the 90-year-old is distinctly viewed as incapable, true or not. Offers of help come pouring out from friends and strangers alike. “I’ll take that.” “Let me carry that.” “I’ll do that.” Hands grab for elbows - “That’s a curb.” “That’s a step.” “I’ll open that.” And there’s the generic, “Let me.”

I am offered the most help by an 88-year-old friend who is no more capable than I. Perhaps it’s the maudlin tenor of the voice that disturbs me most. I’d be so much happier if people waited for me to ask for help, which I would do without qualm if I felt the necessity.

If, at 90, you enjoy being catered to and waited on, be my guest. I suspect your slothful ways may work against you - keep you from doing things for yourself when the capability is there, and no one is around to give you a hand. It is easier to lose your self-sufficiency and capability at 90, when it is downright refreshing to be able to say, “I can do that.” “I don’t need help,” I often feel like shouting. I don’t feel the need to make other people feel better at my expense.

Fifty- and sixty-year-olds of my acquaintance don’t need help opening jars and cans. Eighty- and 90-year-olds pour over self-help catalogs with the same enthusiasm once reserved for Esquire and Vogue. Gadget manufacturers take notice!

Fifty- and 60-year-olds can still afford to be adventuresome in their dining habits. My taste buds seem to have been eroded sometime within the past few years. I, who couldn’t prepare food without garlic, can no longer taste that necessity of life. Food no longer tastes as good, and we don’t seem to need as much of it. (Could all the medications we consume be replacing part of the pyramidal food chain?)

Finally, I, for one, am quite a bit easier going than I was and don't get so upset by behaviors and comments that once drove me nuts and kept me awake at night.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Sydney Halet gives us a poem of childhood, Goin' Fishin'.]

Comments

Most informative. Although, the thought of a world without garlic seems scary to me, perhaps I will be lucky and that won't happen to me as I age. Thanks.

Good post! I think AARP needs a reality check, too. It totally ignores the realities of aging for most people.

Ms Aronoff--Thank you for writing such a thoughtful and thought-provoking posting. At a mere age 70, I have already had to fight the battle, since about age 60, of, "Get your hands off that whatever. I can tote it, myself!" (I can work up a pretty good sneer when someone tells me that I shouldn't be lifting a 60-pound bag of salt or sand!)
You gave us a powerful reminder that we do no on any favors by doing for others what they can/should/want to be doing for themselves.

I think it is hard for not so old (50's) to know when to offer to assist an elder or when said elder prefers to (and is capable of ) doing things themselves. My MIL at 80 has rheumatoid arthritis and does appreciate help with preparing food since her hands are in bad shape. She just doesn't want to do cooking that involves chopping and peeling but she loves the dishes I bring over. We call it "Meals on Foot"
If I see someone older than me struggling at the grocery store or in the parking lot, should I offer to help or just leave them alone? Many offers to help are just people being kind.
That said, maybe I will feel differently about it when I am 80.

I had a sister who was blind. She didn't like it when someone would just assume she needed help, but she liked to be asked.

"Excuse me, would you like help crossing the road?" or "May I help you with your package?"

She would decide whether she needed help or not.

It is true that we need to be able to accept help as gracefully as we give it, but only if we actually need it. Independence in what we can still do for ourselves is important to hang on to. So I found your attitude to all this very refreshing indeed, Leah.
I am bothered, however, by the 'multiple pills' thing. There seems to be a general assumption that everyone over 70 is on a bunch of meds of some kind. I know it is true that many are. And obviously there are some who need to be. But unfortunately, I think the reason for 'multiple pill syndrome' is not that elders are all suffering severe illnesses but that doctors are trained only to prescribe drugs rather than to look at lifestyle issues. Once you take the first pill, then you need a second pill to counteract the side effects of the first one and before you know it you have entered 'multiple pill' territory. Drugs, IMO, should be absolutely a last resort. If we prize our independence, we need to remain aware, informed and fully in charge of our own health and not cede control of it to doctors (which, ultimately, means ceding it to drug companies. I once asked an 89 relative what her various pills were for and she replied, indignantly "How should I know?" Sadly, this is all too common.

Thank you, Leah for this very timely & helpful post for me, at 72 has a 93 year old mother struggling mightly for the past year with so many changes in her life. She is no longer as sharp, as focused or as pleasant as she once was just a short time ago. She remains with fierce determination to continue living alone ignoring the dust & shabby surroundings of an apartment complex undergoing similar aging challenges! From one day to the next I don't know what I'll find when I visit her. I take her food which she appreciates very much, & she manages to do some shopping & have lunch with friends her age who are in similar circumstances. I've been patiently waiting for someone to remind AARP & others like them that you can't put all of us in the same category. It's true that elders do have some commonalites, but I truly believe that around age 70 the changes become sharper, more pronounced & much more problematic. Thank you for pointing this out. Perhaps it's the first inkling that the view from here will enhance a better understanding of elders & aging. However, I'm not too optimistic because aging isn't sexy. BTW, you sound like someone I'd like to call friend. Dee

Although I am seven years younger than Leah, I can identify with almost everything she says.

I have a neighbor who is just one year younger than me and she is always grabbing something form my hand saying, "Here, I'll carry that." or giving advice as if I haven't learned anything in 83 years. It irritates the hell out of me. I think it's her problem and not mine, though.

AARP probably started targeting 50-year-olds as a marketing strategy. At 62, I've been receiving their mailers for 12 years and have thus far resisted the temptation to join, although my mother-in-law is reasonably satisfied with her AARP Medicare supplemental insurance.

But who can speak for any age group spanning 40 years? The 50-90 group isn't any more cohesive than the 40-80 group or the 30-70.

Great to hear from a truly older voice around here! I'll be visiting my 106 year old friend Gertrude today at the Casa with my therapy dog, Darwin. She was busy reading last week so didn't want to visit; I hope she'll make time for us today if she's not too busy. ;^)

And please no one tell the AARP I turned 50 -- not ready for that stuff at all yet...

I received my first AARP membership packet on my 50th birthday -- talk about efficiency!

Like Leah says, in their publications they lean very heavily toward that 50-65 age group. It's a shame that AARP has become the defacto representative organization for elders. We should always remember that they began as a commercial enterprise, and in my opinion, remain one.

It's hard to know when help is wanted. As a good ole southern boy, I was taught to lend a hand to elders. But we need to be sensitive to whether that hand is needed or appreciated. I think the key is remembering to respect others, and to honor the dignity that each one of us has, no matter the age.

You seem like a very hip chick, Leah! Thanks for sharing.

I guess I am one of those "younger" people that AARP is targeting, my wife is the older woman and she joined a couple of years ago. You ask should AARP have different content/marketing approaches to the 50-70 and 70+ groups?

I am very torn about this...do I have a lot in common with a 70 year old or older, right now, no I probably don't, my perspective and issues are completely different. At the same time I do plan on being one of the 70 plus group someday (19 years from now) and if I am aware today of some of the issues, perhaps using that information or wisdom of those that go before me, I can change what I am doing or supporting today.

I think it is what or who we support politically, what policies (health, education, social security to name a few) and who we choose to as our leadership that really counts.

You can't change yesterday, you can live today, but tomorrow there is a chance to make it a bit different if we make wise choices.

I strongly agree with Marian Van Eyk McCain's statement regarding prescription pill pushing, it seems once you get on that particular course there is no turning back. Perhaps that is where we have to have pushback or different policies/training for doctor's to provide instead of always seeming to push a pill to cure everything. Almost all perscriptions have their side effects that seem to need another pill to counteract. This seems to me to be: using a technology phrase - a circular reference that doesn't really give a real answer, but can cause lots of problems if not discovered soon enough.

Thank you for you perspective as an 90 year old, I can only hope that I live that long and be as healthy as you have been.

Stay independent as long as you can and Good Life to you :)
Harold

You give good thoughts and wisdom. I have been around the elderly with my mother and in-laws and it definitely gets different from mid-80s on-- depending on general health. It was said by Bette Davis that old age is not for sissies and she nailed it pretty well in my opinion. At 65, I am on my way but know I am not there

An honest, down to earth look at growing old is in short supply these days. I thank you for contributing this.
I wish you well in your upcoming stomach surgery. You sound like a fighter who is strong and used to winning.

Take care
Chancy

Having lived in New York, and worked in the garment business, I get the sense that you are very comfortable around people and you certainly know how to communicate.
Your writing is both refreshing and compelling! Thank you very much.

Hello, Leah. Thank you for this interesting blog. I homecared both my parents and recognize a lot of the things you mention from my mom's old age. She was 7 years younger than my dad. I never did understand why Dad was such a staunch supporter of AARP, which catered to its younger members and still does, apparently. Both my parents passed on at 97. I feel as if you have greatly contributed to the wealth of knowledge on old age which Ronni is collecting here. I hope you find someone with whom to discuss your upcoming operation and hope it will go well. I know my dad had a colon cancer operation at 89 and survived, although it did set him back a bit for a while. I was still in Europe then, so I do not remember for how long. Once you have recovered, I hope you will share your experience with us.

Dear Leah - that was a beautiful post...I would like to say "to 120" but we have to take whatever God gives us...and if we have our health - we have our wealth. At age 65 - everyday a new ache pain or bad cold, I understand why people get tired of it. It is tough to be positive, when the body is "doing its on thing." LIKE WE HAVE A CHOICE.....

I believe that Susan G came up with the answer to Zuleme's question about giving help. I don't mind when someone says, "Do you want help?" or "May I help?" I don't mind, that is, if they readily accept whatever answer they get to the question.

Dear Leah,
Thanks for the food for thought, the delightfully frank turn of phrase, and the attitude. I get it.
Nance

I have known Leah Aronoff for many years, and have loved her each minute of those years. Still do. She is a gorgeous, brilliant, effervescent woman who, I anticipate, will glow with even more oomph until she and her Maker decide it is time to hang it up.

And, with regard to that "quitting time", I believe (and Leah knows) that it makes no real difference if one in 99, 80, 70, or even 20: the day of reckoning is, in all instances,uncertain, and in most instances, unforeseeable. So be it.

So, Sweet Leah, hang in there.

Your pal, Leon

Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and for giving us a reality check. I hope your surgery is successful. You are amazing - hugs across miles.

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