When Death Knocks, And Knocks, And Knocks

When you reach your 50s, as Kish and I have, part of life is dealing with death.  Whether it is more senior members of your family succumbing to age-related conditions, or colleagues who die in inexplicable, tragic accidents, or friends who finally are taken down after long battles with cancer, at some point death becomes a significant, unfortunately recurring part of the reality of your life.

IMG_1087The question is how to deal with the losses, particularly when the deaths come in bunches — as so often seems to be the case.  People find themselves grappling with complex combinations of emotions that they don’t typically experience at the same time — such as grief, and guilt, and also anger — and everyone needs to deal with them in their own way.  When multiple deaths hit in a short period of time, and strike down people who are about your age, you can’t help but think of your own mortality, and wonder. 

Kish and I try to go to calling hours or memorial services, as a kind of tangible sign to the surviving family members of the significance and impact of the departed; I’m not sure whether the family members appreciate it or not, but it makes us feel better.  Collecting your thoughts about the person, mentally composing your own personal tribute, and focusing on the good, also seems to help.  And as we’ve gotten older, and seen how people respond to such losses in different ways, I find that I’ve become a lot less judgmental and a lot more accepting about how people respond.  

Ultimately, though, you just hope that the period of bad news finally ends, and a period of good news begins.  We’ve got a family wedding coming up, and we’re looking forward to it.

My Periodic Glimpse Of The Aging End Game

With Mom in an assisted living facility, my visits to see her have exposed me to the impact of old age in ways I’ve never seen before.  It’s been an eye-opener.

Typically my interaction with the residents happens in two scenarios — coming and going, and in the dining room.  When you enter the facility, you pass outdoor benches and rockers.  If the weather permits, there are usually some residents outside.  Most of them are smokers.  It was a bit jarring the first time I saw 85-year-old women dragging away on cigarettes, but the smokers probably figure what the hell — why not, at this point? Curiously, the smokers seem to be among the residents in the best overall shape.

IMG_1147Many of the other residents are congregated in the large common room near the entrance.  Some of them are in wheelchairs, and most of the rest use walkers.  Some are sleeping — usually deeply, often with heads back and mouths wide open — and others are just sitting.  Although there usually are many people in the room, there typically isn’t much conversation.  Even when I walk in on an event, like a bingo game run by a chipper assistant or an accordion performance, many of the residents are disengaged.

Some residents still get dressed up and take care with their appearance, and others have just let it go.  You’ll see women in make-up and jewelry and coordinated outfits and others who just wear loose shifts.  Some of the people clearly are with it, and others aren’t.  Recently, when Mom was still down in the dining room when I arrived, I sat at her table with a cheerful woman who, upon being introduced, immediately told me that she had no short term memory.  Within a minute, she repeated herself several times.  She clearly was aware of her condition, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Mom’s assisted living facility is a nice place, as such facilities go.  It’s kept very clean, the meals are well-prepared, and the staff members are friendly and attentive and work hard at what has to be a very tough job.  Most of the residents seem to have accepted their situations and are . . . waiting, and trying to make the best of things.  They can’t take care of themselves, their spouses are gone, and they really don’t have any good alternatives.

Even though I’ve been visiting the place for more than a year, I’m still sorting through my reactions to the very complicated issues raised by the end-game scenario.

AIDS And Alzheimer’s

The New York Times has a thought-provoking piece contrasting the public health reaction to AIDS to the public health reaction to Alzheimer’s disease.

The article notes that this year AIDS has fallen out of the list of the top 10 causes of death in New York City — replaced by Alzheimer’s.  In fact, the article reports, research now indicates that deaths attributable to the latter disease are grossly underestimated and that it may be responsible for nearly as many deaths in one year as AIDS has been in the more than three decades since its terrible emergence.  And yet, while AIDS research remains a public health focus supported by a robust social movement, there is no similarly active movement lobbying for increased Alzheimer’s research, prevention, and treatment.  Why?

IMG_2947Although the article correctly points out the success of the fight against AIDS as a public health movement, it was not always that way.  In the early days of AIDS, there was a lot of denial and politicization of the underlying health issues, discussed in appalling detail in the excellent book And the Band Played On:  Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts.  It wasn’t until people got past the denial and politicization and focused on the awful public health cost of AIDS that effective education, prevention, and ultimately treatment programs were developed.  The fact that the disease was so terrible in its toll, and cut down our friends and family members in the prime of their lives, helped to drive the public health effort.

With Alzheimer’s, the toll of the disease is great, but the catalyzing circumstances that energized the fight against AIDS seem to be lacking.  Alzheimer’s is an affliction primarily of the elderly, who are regarded as already in their twilight years.  It’s a painful and somewhat embarrassing disease for surviving family members to deal with, as the victim gradually loses his mental faculties and all memories of loved ones.  So far as we know, Alzheimer’s is not readily communicable, and we’ve already got facilities in place where those unfortunate souls who become debilitated can be kept and cared for while the disease does its grim and inexorable work.  Those different circumstances, perhaps, explain why Alzheimer’s simply doesn’t command the same kind of attention that AIDS received.

Or, alternatively, it may be that these factors have simply kept Alzheimer’s in the denial stage for a much longer period, and only now are people finally confronting the disease and its awful consequences, which leave formerly vibrant people empty, haunted shells of their former selves.  The aging of the Baby Boom generation no doubt will help to increase awareness and attention.  I hope so, because the clock is ticking, and the prospect of contracting Alzheimer’s should scare the hell out of us.

Facebook And The Arc Of Coolness

There’s been lots of chatter lately about the future of Facebook. Millions of teenage users apparently are no longer using the social media network. Some Princeton researchers have concluded that social networks are like communicable diseases that infect people rapidly then just was quickly burn out; they predict Facebook will lose 80 percent of its peak user base by the 2015-2017 time period.

There’s no doubt that Facebook is not as cool as it once was, but that result always was inevitable — because nothing stays ubercool for long. The equation of coolness is simple: young people add to coolness, and old people who aren’t rock stars detract from it. Once Moms and Dads and people in their 60s started to use Facebook to post boring pictures, send inspirational messages, and attempt to make “hip” comments about their kids’ drunken selfies, any self-respecting youngster would realize that the coolness luster was gone . . . and move on to the next big thing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook is doomed. My guess is that Facebook wants to end up as a kind of utility — that is, an invention that initially is cutting-edge and used by only a few people and later becomes so broadly accepted that it is unconsciously integrated into everyone’s daily life, like the electric light or the telephone. iPads might not be as cool as they once were, but does Apple care if they are being sold by the millions to uncool people in the business community who love the idea of a lightweight device that they can customize to meet their unique business and personal requirements?

The key for Facebook, or for that matter any other form of social media, is whether it can make that transition. If Facebook sticks around and keeps that critical mass of users, will those coolness-sensitive teens return to the Facebook fold when they hit their late 20s and realize that the social media network is a really handy, one-stop place to keep in contact with high school buddies, college friends, and former co-workers, remember their birthdays, and have some sense of what they are doing with their lives?

When You Realize You Are Completely Out Of It

One of my mentees and his wife have welcomed a new addition to their growing family.  The baby’s name will be Maxwell.

I wanted to make a mild joke about the newborn with my other mentees, so I asked them whether they thought it would be appropriate to get little Maxwell a silver hammer.  In response, I was greeted with absolutely blank stares.  “I don’t think a hammer would be an appropriate gift for an infant,” one of my mentees politely responded.  “Is there some kind of tradition involved in giving a hammer to a child?” another asked.

“You know, the Beatles song,” I prompted.  Additional baffled looks.  “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer?”  I added.  More uncomfortable silence.

Occasionally, an incident occurs that crystallizes the fact that you are getting incredibly old, and the common cultural touchstones that used to be assumed in every conversation are common touchstones no more.  My references to Beatles song have no more resonance with my 20- and 30-something mentees than the latest Jay-Z song (assuming Jay-Z is still a popular artist — which I of course am blissfully unaware of) would have with me.

Abbey Road

Tonight, as we ease into the weekend, I decided to listen, again, to the Beatles’ timeless Abbey Road.  It’s only, say, the 10,000th time I’ve listened to this album, which has been a staple on my music rotation since it was first released.  It’s one of the few pieces of music I’ve listened to consistently over those 40+ years, from the teenage years through college, to the D.C. era, the early family years and now to my mid-50s.

As I’ve listened to the music over the years, my perspective has changed.  At first, I just loved the music because it’s great music.  In college, I listened in fervent hope that the Beatles might reunite and create more fantastic music like this.  By the late ’80s, when CDs replaced albums, Abbey Road was one of the very first CDs I bought, because the album is an absolute foundation stone, an essential element of any collection of modern music.

Tonight I listen, marveling at the extraordinary musicianship of this group of four British lads and thinking hard about what it must have been like, in the late ’60s, to be in the studio when the music first came to life.  At that time, the Beatles were at the absolute pinnacle of popular culture, in a way no single person or act has been, perhaps, before or since.  Their every move was flash-bulbed, their every every lyric and note was scrutinized, and their every album was breathlessly anticipated by millions as yet another opportunity for the Beatles to break the mold, bend the arc of popular music and culture, and move the frontiers forward.  What must it have been like to write a song under those conditions?  What must it have been like to know that, by sleeping in an Amsterdam bed or being photographed with a new girlfriend or attending the show of a new act you could control the stories that appeared in tomorrow’s headlines?

And I think, as I listen to side two of Abbey Road, which has been my favorite piece of music during those 40+ years, period, I wonder:  what must it have been like to sit in that Abbey Road studio, at the very peak of the popular world, and think:  “Hey, let’s combine all of these great songs into one continuous song, blending seamlessly one into the other” — and know that you have the complete, unfettered freedom to do something like that because, for you, at that moment in time, there are no boundaries whatsoever?

Yes, It’s November

It is November 1.  Today many Americans will shake their heads sadly and say to a loved one, co-worker, or friend:  “Wow, can you believe it’s November already?  This year really has flown.”

If you find yourself making such a scintillating observation, you need to face facts — you’re obviously getting up there.  There is no surer sign of aging than remarking ruefully on the rapid passage of time.  AARP enrollment scouts that have infiltrated the general population listen for such comments and immediately arrange for membership mailings to be sent to the speaker.  Salesmen of retirement planning products target such people for detailed sales presentations on the merit of annuities.  You may as well make permanent reservations at the “early bird” sitting at the nearest inexpensive cafeteria that gives the Golden Buckeye card discount, lay in a lifetime supply of bluing rinse, and hitch your trousers up to nipple height.

In case you’ve forgotten, young people never say such things.  If they even notice that another month has gone by, it’s probably because it means that Christmas is another month nearer and, perhaps, it’s time to start behaving so they have a reasonable chance of being rewarded by Santa Claus.  Or, they are excited about Thanksgiving and seeing whether they can eat even more turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie than they did last year.  Or, they’re in high school or college and are looking forward to that long winter break when they can sleep in even later, get together with their friends, and worry their parents when they don’t come home until 2 a.m.

So, if you’re tempted today to express sad surprise that November is here, do yourself a favor and refrain.  You’re only demonstrating that, mentally at least, you’re far along on the road to geezerdom.