I have a book out. It's called "Staying Power: Age-Proof Your Home for Comfort, Safety and Style." And I'm proud of it. If it helps people I know and even more people I don't know age healthy and happy, my job is done.
Still, working on a book about aging has meant figuring out how to make this subject appealing... or at least not dismayingly off-putting. I mean, who wants to learn about tub transfer benches? Who cares about tile slip resistance? Did I really have to choose such an un-sexy topic for my first book?
Yes, I did. Though maybe the topic chose me.
Just a year ago, I was writing about brain cells and the nervous system, as I had for years. That's fascinating stuff and I love it. After hours, though, friends and acquaintances who knew I studied Aging (with a capital "A") were telling me stories.
The stories were about their parents, falling and fading, losing their vision, their hearing, their minds. The stories were also about themselves, anywhere on the spectrum of involvement from mildly concerned to overwhelmed and frantic.
And their stories had themes. Honest-to-goodness literary themes. Themes that, when I noticed them, made me glad I stayed awake in high school English.
One recurring theme involved character traits, one in particular. Older parents were nearly always called "stubborn." Someone should write a dissertation on the relentless characterization of old people as "stubborn." It's true that attitudes tend to harden a bit with age, but my word, this word showed up often. Is there a sociolinguist in the room?
Another classic theme was that of conflict: conflict between elder care and one's self, one's children, one's work. When an 82-year-old woman falls and breaks her hip, goes to the hospital and develops pneumonia at the same time that your company is threatening layoffs, your son drops out of college, and the breast surgeon wants to see you in six months, it makes the "work-life balance" of the '80s look like child's play.
Institutional conflicts -- tangles and delays with agencies, insurance, hospitals -- gave many stories a gritty documentary feel.
There were interpersonal conflicts, the stuff of novels. Family disputes over how to manage mom's care. Complaints about siblings who slacked off or, maybe more vexing, took charge without permission. Liars and cheaters, with lawyers out of Dickens. Money worries.
Intra-personal conflict was common, sometimes reaching Dostoevsky-esque levels of guilt. "He tells me they don't need anything, but I don't think it's true." "I wish I could make it easier for her." "I can't go on vacation. What if something happens?"
But while conflict makes a story juicy, structure makes it satisfying. Strong stories reach a climax, some kind of turning point. The stories I heard reached those time and again, with emergencies that had my friends living like doctors-in-training, resting on cots between calls. The story of life is so dramatic; how could its end fail to be?
Still, the stories weren't all doom and gloom. Some among my peers (I'm in my 50s) reported with relief from the elder-care sweet spot. Their folks were pretty healthy, maybe in their 70s, living nearby and independent. Maybe they had enough money and foresight to have moved to a continuing-care community before things got out of hand.
Yet even those storytellers kept me spellbound with suspense. They hinted. They foreshadowed. "We're worried about his memory." "We think she's not telling us something."
Rosy or rotten, the stories kept coming. Eventually, I started to tell my own. And my husband shared his. And our elders talked about it, to one another and to us. And on and on these stories go, multiplying as more and more people enter years that might be relatively productive and uneventful but for a world unprepared for unprecedented "oldness." That's how we get the conflict. That's how we get the crisis. And that's how we get our stories.
Our stories are important. They give meaning to our days; they shape the random and often inexplicable aspects of life into some sort of a coherent whole. They help us feel better.
As "aging" becomes more central to our individual and civic lives, as we age to the point at which decisions have to be made, situations altered, homes adapted (yes, that's my book), help obtained, and institutions remade, we are going to tell many more such stories. We need to listen (without judgment; remember each of us does our best) and we need to respond.
So here's my story. I heard the stories and I wanted to respond. I wrote this particular book because home is important, so aging at home is important. I wrote it because, while gifted writers are capturing "aging" with passion and poignancy, my limited imagination starts with "activities of daily living" and ends with "friction tape."
But that's okay, because things like friction tape can help your story have a happier ending... and the characters in it are you and the people you love.