Not Dead Yet: Aging Parents Also Struggle With Caretaking
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we want to take a closer look at what happens after retirement. As the baby boom generation is getting older, there's been more and more focus on the challenge of aging. And there's been a lot of attention recently on how to take care of these seniors, how to manage their medical and financial and emotional needs, as well as your own. But our next guest says hold on there a minute, young blood, with all this focus on helping adult children cope, is anybody asking the seniors themselves for their take? That's why writer Judy Oppenheimer published her piece in Slate. It's titled "Not Dead Yet: The Trials of Being - Not Caring For, Not Dealing With But Being - An Aging Parent." And Judy is with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
JUDY OPPENHEIMER: It's a pleasure.
MARTIN: Your piece starts with the certain look that you say that people give to their aging parents or other seniors. And so for those who have not been privy to the look, what's the look?
OPPENHEIMER: It's a kind of a, you know, serious pained expression that comes over your children generally, your grown children, when they think maybe you've forgotten something or you've said something a little silly. And actually the piece kind of grew out of this look.
MARTIN: Did your kids give you the look?
OPPENHEIMER: I have received it look.
MARTIN: You have received the look. Was there something - what - you couldn't find your keys or something? Or what was it that occasioned the look?
OPPENHEIMER: It was something - actually it was thought that I was wrong about something and I wasn't wrong. But after receiving the look now and then, I spoke with it about it to some of my friends who are my age, and everybody was familiar with this look.
MARTIN: It said just that, you know, the bad times might be happening.
OPPENHEIMER: This might be happening. Everything that they're talking about in the media, everything we're reading about lately because there's been such an uptick, as you say, and attention to this.
MARTIN: But - how can I say this - but there is cause for concern isn't there? I mean, the fact of the matter is people are living a lot longer. There is concern that their savings might not last.
OPPENHEIMER: No question.
MARTIN: And that something bad can happen really fast.
OPPENHEIMER: No question. I think the attention is a good thing. I just think there's another side that has to be looked at too.
MARTIN: Well, what is that side? Tell us more.
OPPENHEIMER: Well, the point is this society has never really been one that prized the elderly. You know, some societies have in the past, you know, for their intelligence and their combined knowledge. But not here, not in America. So all we need is to add to this. And this attitude that I think is pervasive a little bit that - you know, at a certain point or after a certain point, we become childlike and lose our ability to make any decisions at all.
I mean, there were some articles around the sort of - that floated around the last holidays about the holidays are a good time to talk to mom and dad about how they're failing and decisions that we want to make together. It's a great idea to talk, it really is, but I think with this attention, it's making people very aware of what could happen and...
MARTIN: And also your feeling is you're kind of becoming seen as a problem and not as a person.
MARTIN: How would you recommend people approach these conversations? You don't disagree that these conversations need to happen, right? That people need to be - they need to discuss what their wishes are.
OPPENHEIMER: Not only do I think they should be happening, I think that they just as often should be, you know, initiated by the older people themselves. Why not, you know?
MARTIN: But how would you recommend people toe that line or walk that line between being concerned and then crossing that line into being patronizing and then into treating you like an object instead of like a person?
OPPENHEIMER: It's a difficult thing isn't it? Because the way these things are written, there's something patronizing about it to begin with. In something - viewing your parent as childlike, you know. Somebody was telling me about a recent ad they saw on TV and this is - these commercials that showed a mother and her daughter very concerned about the grandparents, both of whom were wondering around with vague looks on their face. I know these things happen. I mean, I dealt with elderly parents myself. I actually dealt - my father had Alzheimer's, it was a terrible thing. So I know that attention needs to be paid, but I think also there's another side to this that's not getting coverage.
MARTIN: And you think that the - part of it is kind of to hasten the idea of kind of dealing with people, kind of get them out of the way, as opposed to living with the fullness. But, you know, what do you say to people who say actually this country it's maybe - maybe culturally we're biased toward the young, but politically we're very much biased toward the old.
OPPENHEIMER: Well, that's true.
MARTIN: I mean, the vast majority of resources in health care go to seniors. That's a fact at the very end of life...
OPPENHEIMER: That's true.
MARTIN: And that people say that - so how would you recommend that? Do seniors have any responsibility for kind of balancing that out themselves? Or not, I mean, you may not.
OPPENHEIMER: Well, they should, but everybody should be part of the conversation is what I feel the most. You know, it shouldn't just be people doing unto others and making decisions for them.
MARTIN: What is your main kind of peeve about this? I know, I read the piece - one of the things you talked about is this assumption that all your knowledge has some become useless. I mean, you talked about, you know, too many of you assume we know nothing, as befits anyone on their way out. Raising children - you said one of my friends raised three of them and is a pediatric nurse who operated a wellness clinic and served as a professor at two medical schools - however, at 70, how could she know anything about babies.
Once when she was attempting to calm her crying 6-month-old grandson, she flipped on the TV to distract him, it worked immediately, but a few minutes later she heard a key in the door and she nearly wrenched her back trying to get the TV turned off before her son and daughter-in-law got inside because all TV is bad for babies no matter what, you know, or when. So that's one pet peeve - is people treating you as if kind of your brain has just been washed away to nothing. But what else?
OPPENHEIMER: Well, the thing is that things have changed. It's true. I mean, there are things I look back, you know, the kind of car seats we had our kids in, like I said, the fact that nobody ever wore a helmet. That's not good. I'm all for all these changes. It's great. I'm more for people being more careful. But there's this attitude because we were - we raised our kids in a different time, I feel there's an attitude that we don't - therefore...
MARTIN: ...Know anything
OPPENHEIMER: ...We're wrong on every level, you know.
MARTIN: To use a completely inappropriate analogy, just too much throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
MARTIN: So how would you recommend we fix this? I mean, what would be the way to start making these conversations be more respectful?
OPPENHEIMER: Well, it'd be very nice if people were actually able - if the elderly, the older people - were actually able to talk about this. Say, you know, look, don't treat me like I'm losing it because I'm not yet or I haven't completely and I do have some good ideas. But that's not going to happen, probably, because we tiptoe around our kids a great deal, our adult kids. You know, we tend to. I mean, we don't want to put them off. We don't want to mess up any access to grandchildren. So we don't tend to say things like this.
MARTIN: What - I know this is a bit of a cliche, but do you think that the culture would help? I mean, would TV help, would movies help if seniors were viewed in a way other than as sort of objects to be pitied. I mean, there've been a couple movies where - of, well, let's say former CIA agents coming out of retirement and having a whale of a time, like, showing people what's what. You know, that sort of thing. Does something like that help?
OPPENHEIMER: Or Clint Eastwood coming out. It helps for the moment. You know, I don't know if it helps on any grand scale, but it would be nice if there was more of that. It would be nice if we could see even in commercials now and then an intelligent comment from an elderly person because here's the thing, as I mentioned, you know, this horrible statistic that at 85, after 85, half of us supposedly are showing some signs of dementia, which means half of us aren't. And the fact is my father had Alzheimer's, but also in my family I can just reel off about five cousins who are in their 90s, who are living on their own, who are just as bright and together as they ever were. So it's a two-way street, you know.
MARTIN: What kind of responses have you gotten to the piece? I couldn't help but notice that a lot of them were very critical.
OPPENHEIMER: Very critical. Yeah.
MARTIN: What were some of the things that people said?
OPPENHEIMER: I got - there were a lot of comments so I hit a nerve for a lot of people for some reason. Some of them called me narcissistic, which I didn't feel made much sense. And bitter. And one of the ones that I really loved called me a liar because nobody my age could have small grandchildren. But I do, so they can because...
MARTIN: Yeah. That's interesting. Well, what do you make of it?
OPPENHEIMER: I don't know. That I hit a nerve, you know, on both sides probably. Yeah.
MARTIN: And that people are afraid maybe.
OPPENHEIMER: Maybe so. Maybe so. I mean, there are people who understood completely what I was trying to say. And some of the other people said that, you know, I - maybe I was trying to be funny. Well, Yeah.
MARTIN: It was funny. Well, how did I do, Judy? Did I give you the respect that you deserve?
OPPENHEIMER: You did, Michel. And I'm so pleased because I've always enjoyed your show. And I've got to say this before I get off - you have one of the greatest voices in radio. I love listening to your voice.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. I wasn't fishing for a compliment...
OPPENHEIMER: No, no, no, that is true.
MARTIN: I just wanted to make sure that I gave you your propers. That was writer Judy Oppenheimer. Her piece in Slate is titled "Not Dead Yet." And she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Judy, thank you so much for joining us.
OPPENHEIMER: Oh, you're welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.