Elders, the Supreme Court and the Republican Budget
The Misconception That Elders are Stuck in their Ways

Age and Its Awful Discontents (?)

category_bug_ageism.gif Today's blog post title (but for the question mark) is taken verbatim from a New York Times Op-Ed piece published about ten days ago by attorney and novelist, Louis Begley, age 78. You should go read it now and then come back here. But if not, here are some salient quotations:

”Especially during [my mother's] long widowhood, I feared that unimpeded she would invade my life, the life she had saved. I remained a dutiful son, watching over her needs, but was at first unwilling and later unable to be tender.

“My abhorrence of the ravages and suffering inflicted on the body by age and illness, which predates my mother’s decline in her last years, is no doubt linked to there being no examples of a happy old age in my family.”

Begley goes on to describe a wretched old age of his mother (although there is no way to know if that was her perception too) which, he admits, he did little to alleviate:

”She had loved sitting on a Central Park bench and putting her face in the sun. That humble pleasure was also abandoned; she couldn’t get the hang of using a walker.”

Referring to the protagonist of his novel, About Schmidt, which was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson, and the two Schmidt sequels, Begley writes in his Op-Ed:

”...the reflection of his face in the window of a shop is frightening: he sees a red nose and bloodshot eyes, lips pursed up tight over stained and uneven teeth, an expression so lugubrious and so pained it resists his efforts to smile.

“My appreciation of my own charms is not very different. Like Schmidt, I see that nothing good awaits me at the end of the road...”

Reading Begley's essay half a dozen times slowly and carefully, I tried to understand this man's self-described “bitterness and anguish” at old age. At first I could only pity him and then I became angry.

Taking nothing away from what must undoubtedly be his own perseverance and talent, Begley has lived a life of extraordinary good fortune: a mother who protected him from a Nazi death camp; survival and reunion with his father after the war; immigration to the United States; a Harvard education; successful law career along with international literary acclaim. Not to mention his own family and children, all of whom are accomplished and successful.

I find it distasteful and offensive for someone with so many advantages to complain about what appears to be, so far, a comfortable old age.

And I find it equally distasteful and offensive that The New York Times editorial board highlights the story of a selfish, bitter old man when there are so many others from less advantaged elders who struggle on through whatever infirmities are inflicted upon them with courage and grace.

UPDATE: After writing this on Sunday, there turned up on Monday these four letters to the editor of The New York Times from readers who also disagree with Begley. I particularly like this from Howard Fillit who is a geriatrician and director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation:

”Old age should never be measured by the metrics of youth. An adaptive rather than a maladaptive response to old age and even frailty is possible. Personally, I hope one day to be 95, and in love with a beautiful woman my own age.”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmermann: My Statute of Limitations


I read that essay in the NYT and I found it disturbing. The last sentence particularly stuck in my mind.

"But it has taken me until now, at age 78, to feel in full measure the bitterness and anguish of my mother’s solitude — and that of other old people who end their lives without a companion."

When I saw this in the NYT, I thought, Ronni's going to loathe this. And I did too. This guy seemed so turned in on himself. That read to me like a painful trap.

Maybe all life is suffering as the Buddhists say. But we can (usually) choose to spatter the suffering all around us or to go on through with some grace, even if to individual oblivion.

I too found this an odd item for the Times to be publishing.

My darling Aunt Lil died several months ago. She was almost 96. Up until less than a year before she entered a nursing home, she lived with my daughter, a thousand miles away. For most of the last decade of her life she was bedridden due to a spinal condition, but she never complained.

Lil never married. She was the daughter who stayed home and cared for her mother while her siblings - my eldest aunt, my mother, and her three brothers - went off to live their lives.

I was her son in all but biological fact. She gave me, throughout my life, unconditional love. When I needed help along the way, I turned to Aunt Lil.

Lil grew up during the Depression. In 1944 she went to work on the line in a factory. She never went to college,despite her obvious intellectual abilities.

I never heard her complain about her lot in life. I never heard her denigrate other people. I never heard her speak with envy or jealousy about the supposed success of other people, but she was a keen observer.

Aunt Lil never preached, but when she made a comment about something or someone, you were the only fool in the room if you failed to listen.

I take her example when I think about a life well-lived. I've been blessed to have known her.

Marc Leavitt--Would you please write a piece (centered on your comment) for the NY Times? It appears they could use it. Would that we all had your attitude.

I didn't read Begley's book but I saw the movie made from it, "About Schmidt." It has funny moments but it is full of bitterness, too, about getting older. This man has a problem. He feels guilty and bitter and regretful about everything.

Thank heaven I don't live in his head. I wonder if he is a sourpuss in real life, or if he just writes like that.

"Personally, I hope one day to be 95, and in love with a beautiful woman my own age.”

I much prefer this outlook on life and old age expressed by Howard Fillet to Begley's
whining "I see that nothing good awaits me at the end of the road, and that passing years will turn my life into a Via Crucis, which is a very sad and morose ritual of the Catholic Church.

For Times readers, Jane Brody offers another view in a piece that went up today.

Sounds like a man who feels guilty he was not kind and loving to his old mother. Let him wear it.

Now that he's old, he imagines that his mother was as miserable and whiny as he is now.

I cannot help but feel that Mr Begley's and his mother's experience relates back to their awful wartime experience. Mr Begley started avoiding his mother for fear of her becoming dependent on him a long time ago, and I suspect that colours his late-life view of how she ended up. He abandoned her (in a sense) and now he thinks she might have been lonely? I think Mr Begley's bitterness were there all along, old age is now his current target. As that actress whose name escapes me now once said, old age is not for sissies. Mr Begley is a sissy.

I was annoyed and saddened when I read Begley's article in the NY Times. He may be privileged and successful outwardly, but the poor fellow has a lot to learn about self-love, finding pleasure in life and loving others it seems. What a sour, infantile view he has.

The comments readers sent to the Times are delightful though, as are these here. Thanks Marc L, for sharing about your Aunt Lil. I am going to check out Jane Brody's article recommended by janisanfran.

Here's to joie de vivre!

I am only 50, but I had the very same reaction to the Op Ed piece. No one, of any age should be as alone as Begley left his mother.

It all comes down to our attitude toward what happens in our life, no matter our age.

We do tend to entrench in our outlook as we get older, so it pays to have developed a positive outlook when we were young.

However, we can change how we view life and its predicaments when we're older if we really want to.

As they say, practice "an attitude of gratitude." It helps.

Mr. Begley sounds like a highly educated, self-absorbed, whiny child. Who would want to spend time with someone with those attitudes? I seek out social engagement about once a week, make every attempt to do more listening than talking, and go home content for another week. 'Different strokes' holds true in old age too Mr. Begley, and no one is stopping you - so 'get a life'!

I have come to believe that people cannot change their natures, and Mr. Begley's is what it is. I cannot imagine complaining with everything that it sounds that he has going for him, but then I am not him.

Three years ago, my husband and I began to get increasingly involved in his parents' lives when they were 89. They had lived remarkably independently up until then. We suspected that my mother-in-law was developing some memory problems, but they never offered up much information, they just got by and kept going. What did them in was my father-in-law's loss of the ability to stand and walk. He mustered on valiantly with a cane, then walker, but when he fell and suffered head trauma, he had neurosurgery and was left reliant on a wheelchair and they had to move from their home to assisted living. My mother-in-law never accepted the move, and has never been the same since, but my father-in-law always had a smile on his face, even when they wheeled him out of recovery after his neurosurgery. He never let me leave from a visit without taking my hands and saying, "Thanks for everything." Ten months later, he had another bad fall, from his wheelchair, at assisted living. He lived only three more days, but he was still smiling through as much of it as he could, and I never once heard him complain. We are what we are.

I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Begley (and possibly his mother) suffered from clinical depression. When you are depressed you just can't see a bright side to anything and find it almost impossible to reach out and make social connections -- which, as Brody points out in her article, is crucial.

I read Louis Begley's piece with dismay. In contrast I thought of the story making the Internet rounds about an elder blind man being taken to his room in a nursing home and saying how beautiful it was. His companion asked how he could think it was beautiful when he was unable to see it and how could he be be so happy to be there. To which the blind man replied, "You have two choices. You can either be happy or you can be unhappy. I choose to be happy."

I can either dwell on my failing body that makes my life one of isolation, or I can be grateful that I have solitude and a comfortable home that I own. For the first time in my life I have the freedom to do as I wish every day without the obligations of my younger years. As Suzy wisely put it, "an attitude of gratitude."

My body started failing me when in middle age when I suddenly lost my hearing over night. Then one knee gave out when I was in my sixties, my back started bothering me in my 70's and I broke my hip in my 80's. Now arthritis is beginning to slow me down and I just discovered that I have Macular Degeneration. If I were to dwell on the deterioration of my old body I would be miserable.

I do not have a single family member living in Arizona (where I live) so it could be assumed that I am very lonely. That assumption would be far from the truth. I am not. My days are full and the computer adds to my enjoyment of life. I have many Internet friends and I treasure them. I keep busy with projects I devise and my days speed by surprisingly fast.

It's true that age has it's drawbacks and you must give up things that used to be pleasurable, but there are rewards as well. I like the old song "Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and don't mess with Mr. In-between".

It's too bad that Mr. Begley never asked his mother whether she was happy or not. I would guess that she was enjoying being free of hearing him whine. ;-)

I'll be the devil's advocate. When I was 70 I nearly died of double pneumonia and heart and kidney failure. I was told that I would not have a long life. So it was with great glee that I turned 80 last week and I hope to have another 10 years at least. However, I can understand Begley's worries. He doesn't sound bitter to me. He sounds realistic. I too live for the ameliorating shots in back, knees and shoulders. I too worry about loneliness. I have many friends, still participate in lots of activities. But, I too get frustrated with the dictum that I should smile and not tell anyone of the days I just stay in bed with a book all day to alleviate pain. Begley has a good life now, but his wartime experiences would leave great scars I'd think. We can't all be as contented as the world wishes us to be. I commend the NYT for publishing this as a prompt for a realitic discussion.

As a writer, I can say that the most beautiful love stories on the planet are the stories of those who accompany each other through old age.

Maybe Mr. Begley should ask Betty White for a date. :) Dee

Hallelujah Darlene! Enough of the tyranny of perpetual cheerfulness! The sense of loss one experiences at old age and the sorrow one must feel approaching the end of life is a human condition generating a wide spectrum of emotions. Some people choose to be stoic and cheerful about it. Good for them! But to angrily slam anyone who feels otherwise demonstrates a total lack of compassion. People, successful or not, are human beings with human emotions. It is ridiculous to dictate that people like Mr. Begley who seem to have it all are not allowed to feel sad or lonely. I find Mr. Begley’s article honest and moving, even though it may not pass the test of political correctness of always giving old age a glorious portrait.

I read so much about aging individuals who appear to face each day with grace and a smile. I read a lot less (and don't really want to read) about the inner thoughts of those individuals who may, like me, simply choose to keep their feelings to themselves. They don't want to be seen as complainers and don't want to burden those around them.

I'm still in good health, but I worry constantly about ending up in a nursing home and/or having to endure long-term pain and disability. "Aging is not for sissies" and I'm a devout coward. An observer would probably say I'm aging gracefully. In fact I'm fearful and worry constantly about what the future holds.

I wonder how many of those seemingly cheerful elders out there are really aging as gracefully and contentedly as other people think.

It's hard not to obsess about one's age, especially in a youth-focused culture like ours.
I think it's important to resist internalizing negativity about old age and elders and to go on doing what I want to do to the best of my ability.
I stay in the public sphere as much as possible, not confining myself exclusively to activities at home or only with my peers. I ignore insults, patronizing attitudes and rebuffs from younger people, which will happen. I refuse to internalize others' fears about old age. And they had better not try to keep me away from the goodies just because I'm 72!

I read your article, his article and enjoyed the insights into both ways of thinking. I was going to comment here but it became blog length; so it'll be in my blog tomorrow. I focused me to thinking about something I never would have right now. So thanks

Just loved Darlene's comments and those of PiedType's. At 84
we would be 'just plain nuts' not to have some concerns and/or worries about what comes next! However it is so much better to do it (no matter how it hurts) with a smile. That way everyone wants you around and is always happy to see you. My two poodles are my saving grace--when I get down in the dumps both of them get so upset, they will do every trick they know to cheer me up.
May they outlive me--bless them and bless you all...

There should have been a sequel or part 2 to the movie "About Schmidt."

Schmidt might have picked his ass up, gone to Africa, met the boy, looked around for some kind of volunteer work using his life experiences, and found a whole new side of himself he never knew existed.

Instead of looking over his shoulder to what he had, did, owned, Schmidt could look forward, bring some good into his world by traveling and discovering he is not his past.

He is his future, if he chooses this mission.

I wanted to see the new Schmidt.

If Schmidt chose a new future, he wouldn't have time to gawk sadly at his reflection in a store window.

He might be building a school for that African boy, or coming home to America and working at a food bank.

The only thing stopping Schmidt, is his boxed in "is that all there is" mind set.

Quit looking back, Schmidt, your life isn't the last page.

While I'm not definitely not ecstatic about the whole process of growing old(er), there's not much I can do about it short of shuffling off this mortal coil which I'm not quite ready to do. There are days when I'm not overjoyed with how I feel, or look, but a lot of life is what you make it--always has been, always will be.

I think one of the things I miss the most is the "sense of possibility"--time left to reboot one's life and start over. However, all things considered, I'm fortunate to have reached age 75. Despite some minor physical limitations, I'm in fairly good health; I drive, work part time, grocery-shop, clean house and volunteer.

Yes, like many others, I worry about what will happen to my husband (age 82) and me as we advance towards "old-old" age. Since we're not part of the 1% (not even close!), a couple of years in assisted living could pretty much wipe us out financially even though we have some long-term care insurance. I also worry about what would happen to me if I'm left alone. I don't have kids (by choice) or other relatives to rely on.

Still, I believe that I will find a way to have some control at the end--even if it comes down to my right to refuse nutrition and hydration. In the meantime, I intend to simply. . .do the best I can.

This man's essay is just painful to read! I would like to suggest that he (and any other interested persons) read from The Legacy Project, March 25, 2012. That is a good read!

I printed out and took your article and the responses from the geriatricians to the NYT article to my writing workshop this morning where it engendered a lively discussion, then writing practice on the subject of "What can we now enjoy that we couldn't when we were younger?" The responses, which I suggested be in poem form, were amazing, and you may see some of them in the Elder Storytelling blog in the future. The group, which I facilitate, the Silver Pens, is composed of 8 women, mostly 79-80 years old, (with one who is 85, with a myriad of health issues, but who meet every Tuesday morning to write memoirs together and support each other through these years of our journeys. All have lived through many traumas, most live alone, and all have a zest for life. I wish Begley could meet us--I'll bet he would be forced to change his tune!

I just watched an interview of Christian Wiman, a poet, by that great Bill Moyers. Christian is fighting for his life in his 30's but still see life as rich and full. I feel this poor writer in the NYT missed a bunch of life's lessons along the way.

Wow. To think there's someone who feels this bitter about living. I'm looking forward to being 95+, so I can fall in love all over again with the woman I am today.

There's wrinkles, twinges, more of things that likely weren't there in my 20's but I wake up to daily being amazed at the "aging" process.

Yes, I also know people who are bitter at 60, 80 and all the steps in between. Still makes me wonder - why?

Everything changes and to be able to still hold the wonder of a child at them is living for me.

But then again, I'm Buddhist - what the heck do I know?:)

I've been thinking about this man and can feel nothing but pity for him. My disgust is with the Times for printing his commentary rather than with the man himself.

There is a vein of smug self-congratulation in some comments that I find off-putting. The willingness to discuss both the heads and tails of aging is a gift we can give each other.

No matter how well I may think I've got graceful aging figured out, there is more and still more to learn. If we live on, as most respondents hope to do, we may encounter some events that aren't so neatly finessed with a relentless positivity. And, when someone we know finds that positivity failing them, we may be of no more use to them than Mr. Begley was to his mother when she needed him.

If it's a mantra we seek, how about "Judge not."?

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