The Common Good
January 2005

Eighty in a 55 zone

by Ed Spivey Jr. | January 2005

I'm the one usually throwing things at the TV.

One of the greatest challenges of my generation is caring for our aging parents,

One of the greatest challenges of my generation is caring for our aging parents, now that medical advances are enabling them to use up our inheritance at a much faster rate. Not to mention how they selfishly spend Social Security money that could otherwise be given to needy defense contractors.

I was reminded of this when my own 80-year-old father and late-70s mom came for a visit and left me with a strong impression: 80 isn’t 80 any more.

A long time ago, my great-grandfather was that age when my cousins and I would visit him in his one-room shack behind our grandparents’ house. We would sit on rickety furniture in that darkened little space, four 8-year-old boys convinced that the strange odors in the air could only be the smell of death. Great-Grandpa’s hearing was mostly gone, so he spoke loudly, punctuating his reminiscences with periodic spits of tobacco juice into a nearby coffee can. Did I mention he was toothless and laughed with a high-pitched cackle? On average, we lasted about five minutes before we would flee, shaken by the ordeal, and take refuge in a nearby tree.

these days you seldom see the elderly with tobacco juice dribbling down their chins. (My own mother has gotten much better about this, especially when company comes over.) Now they whiz down the road with big plans and bigger cars, blowing the dust off unused shuffleboards as they speed by. My father still exudes brash self-confidence as he walks up to my front door, whips out a bundle of bills, and says, "Son, here’s 50 bucks. Now turn up the heat."

To be sure, my parents are slowing down considerably. Because of his advanced age, my father has been reduced to playing a mere three rounds of golf per week. And his growing physical limitations have made him decide to stop doing his own roof repairs "in a few years." (Roof repair happens a lot in coastal Florida. Coincidentally, in another example of the stubbornness that can come with aging, my father refuses to believe that the Bush administration was responsible for last fall’s hurricanes. "OH SURE!" I reply testily, "ignore the science!")

My dad’s daily exercise regimen is also beginning to show evidence of age-related fatigue. He’s finally at the point where I can almost bench-press as much as he does. (Another hundred pounds, and I’m SO going to out-lift him!)

Looking on the bright side, my brother and I have been waiting for decades to get the better of our dad in arm-wrestling. After years of humiliation at the dining room table, it looks like sometime in the next decade we’ll be able to crow, "Take THAT, Mr. 90-year-old! NOW who’s your Daddy!?" Of course, we’ll taunt him from a discreet distance, so as to avoid our father’s conciliatory handshake or loving embrace (known, respectively, as the Crushing Vice-Grip From Hell or the Unending Bear Hug of Pain, also From Hell.)

IT seems my dad’s age has further hampered his mental judgment, given that he recently retired as head usher at church - a gig with obvious power and authority - preferring instead to be, ahem, the doorman of the nursery. When he could be schmoozing with his peers, he has inexplicably chosen to watch over young children waiting for parents after worship. I have seen these children, their faces downcast at leaving a man who’d just put a shiny new quarter in their little hands and who’d said goodbye in the unmistakable voice of Donald Duck. For the first time in their young lives, these children must face the fact that their own parents have limitations and may not measure up, especially in the Donald Duck department.

My mother, too, is beginning to show signs of aging. She has cut back significantly on her daily routine, and now only stays up a couple hours past midnight working on correspondence and computer research for the church library. I can relate to that schedule. When she finally goes to bed, I’ve already been asleep for hours, exhausted despite my youth from another evening of tea-making and page-turning.

Surprisingly, my parents have adopted a moderate attitude toward current events, even though their preferred information source is Fox Spews (sorry, Fox News). In fact, I’m more often the one throwing decorative pillows at television talk shows, uttering epithets that can only be described as, uhm, crotchety.

Be that as it may, my parents will continue to grow older and the day will come when I, as the oldest child, will need to take charge of their care. I accept this responsibility and have assured them that I will spare no effort, no expense, no sacrifice when it finally comes time to move them in with my sister.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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