Reflections on watching your Grandpa age (and watching myself do it, too)

Yes, grandpa. It’s sure been quiet in this house without him. It’s quiet with him here, too, but it’s different. I miss him. I miss worrying if I’m making too much noise when I come through his room from the garage, or if I’ve got lights on in the kitchen after 6 pm. (I wish he still went to bed at 7: that was livin’ large <grin>.)

But, as you know by now, his “procedures” all went well. First, the angiogram in which they checked out his arteries and installed a medicated stent to keep ‘em open. Next day, a pacemaker to keep his heart running at the right speed. It’s pretty amazing they can do all that for a 92-year-old. Mom calls him “bionic grandpa.”

Almost as amazing as healthcare for Americans lucky enough to have great insurance: Bob’s absolute equanimity in facing all those procedures. The doctors were going to fix him up; what else could possibly happen? He’s always felt that way. Doctors are God. (The rest of us, maybe not so much.)

And, lo and behold, once again, he was right. Mom says he already has a lot more energy.

He’s in the rehab center now, for physical therapy and I don’t know what else. I told mom to tell them, Whatever kind of therapy you got, we’ll take. Because, per your last point (“I don’t really know what he wants, and I don’t think he’s capable of knowing what he wants,”) I’ve never, ever doubted that Bob wants to stay alive.

There have been times he was so contagiously depressed that I couldn’t figure out why he wanted to stay alive. But he always has.

Dementia or not, Bob is determined to take the right pills every day, and never ever eat anything unhealthy. He actually reads nutrition labels to identify added sugar, which is more than I can say for most folks 25, 50, 75 years younger than him. Perhaps things will change if he starts to really suffer. But this is not someone asking why God hasn’t taken him yet.

Speaking of God, Bob thinks there’s something inexplicable and unfair that a man like him, who never drank or smoked, should ever be sick at all. He has a bit of Job-like confusion over why anything bad would ever happen to someone as well behaved as he’s been.

I wrote a bit about Bob back in August when we were talking about what we wanted. One big item on my list: I said I wanted to grow older gracefully.

When I think of old age, of course I think of the old people I’ve known and seen, especially the ones I’ve seen up close, like Bob and Grandma Lu and my Dad. But when I try to make sense of the old people I’ve known, I keep coming back to poetry. All the paradigms of aging I know are best thought of in verse.

I do feel sorry for those who don’t have at least a little verse and literature to draw on when they contemplate life. It’s not as if you have to go deep into hidden corners of the canon: it’s all right there in the poems you’d be most likely to come across.

There’s the helpless old man, withering to blow away in a stiff November breeze, “heart fastened to a dying animal,” surrounded by youth preoccupied with their own youth, in Yeats:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick.

That’s from the second verse of Sailing to Byzantium, which begins: That is no country for old men. I should have realized that; maybe you already did.

Then, there are the men who Dylan Thomas importunes to fight until the bitter end:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And, of course, there’s Ulysses in the Tennyson poem you and I and M admire so much:

…Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off…

…Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I used to like Dylan Thomas best. Now, moving towards 59, I like Tennyson best. But I should be able to learn from them all, just as I should learn from all the real old men and women I know. I certainly learn a lot from Bob, and it doesn’t matter if he’s ever imagined he was teaching me anything, or cared if he did.

We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven… I can already relate to that. Ulysses sounds so ancient. But if this is the last voyage he embarks upon soon after returning home to Penelope, he can’t be much more than 50, can he? Maybe even younger. Interesting…

That’s what I worry about: just getting tired. I finished 20th out of 557 New Jersey cyclists signed up for the National Bike Challenge; I did my 50 miles in Ramapo Rally. As you wrote, I am in better shape than a lot of guys my age. I’m certainly not carrying the belly some of ‘em are. My checkup went perfectly fine. Even my knees aren’t hurting quite as much lately. And yet, I get up in the morning, and I’m tired.

I run table tennis in town, and I play hard, but balls get past me that didn’t last year. I start big new work projects and it’s tougher to get rolling. I’m carrying 12 massive online courses (and I’m really trying to take all the exams and write all the papers) but even that’s feeling a little tougher lately.

I’m seriously considering starting graduate work through Harvard Extension School next fall… much of which can be done online, but I’d probably have to commute to Boston one day a week for the first semester. It feels like if I’m gonna ever do that, I better start soon.

Lately, I’m more aware of the entropy of the universe starting to press on me a bit, sort of like the “ether” 19th century physicists imagined the Earth was passing through. Like walking slightly uphill.

And yet

This week’s New York Times Magazine was all about health; or more specifically, about the quest of folks my age and older to “stay young.” There’s a quite remarkable article about Ellen Langer’s social psychology experiments, which offer tantalizing (if far from conclusive) evidence that much of age really is in your mind, after all.

Langer invited 8 guys in their mid-70s to a retreat; she picked guys in fairly poor health. Then, she surrounded them with pictures of themselves 20 years ago. The TVs were jiggered to only show 20-year-old entertainment and news programs. They were given 20-year-old magazines to read. And after less than a week, they’d improved substantially on a wide variety of physical measures. Even their eyesight was better.

Reading about Langer’s work, I wonder if I shouldn’t work on increasing my suggestibility. I always say “58 is the new 58,” and I’m always trying to ferret out medical interventions that are “just placebos,” fooling people into thinking they’re actually biologically useful. There’s nothing I hate more than thinking I’m fooling myself about reality or pretending to still be young when I’m so obviously not (like all those other people do <grin>).

Could it be, after all this time, I need a little more Fox Mulder? That I just need to believe in those multi-vitamins my doctor gave me?

i want to believe

For someone like “rational” me, that’d be one big kick in the pants. It’d be as if the world was going out of its way to shake up my most deeply held values and understandings.

But then (if you’re paying attention) the world does that.

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Reflections on Watching Grandpa Age

This was my latest essay for my Advanced Expository Writing class. While this isn’t addressed to you, or really to anyone, I thought this would make a good blog post, seeing as how it’s been too damn long since I posted, and these are issues that I’m sure you’ve been thinking about as well.

Now that I’m at college, I think about my grandpa less. It’s almost six years since my grandma, his wife, died and he moved in with us. In that time, he’s shown me what it’s like to age — or at least one version of it. He has dementia, and in the last six years I’ve seen him become less of himself — and it’s forced me to ask daunting questions about how I’ll age and who I’ll become.

As I watched my grandpa age in high school, I found him intolerable. He was (and still is) pathologically impatient, obsessively compulsive, and childishly petty. He could never stay in one place for long, which meant we could never stay in one place for long. He went to bed at 7:00pm, and the fear of waking him kept me from inviting my friends over on the weekends. He consistently made unfair demands of my mom, and often treated my dad with disdain or indifference, even when he tried to make my grandpa’s life easier. This was not the grandpa I had known, who for fourteen years had been fun, playful, and compassionate. Of course, he was still more or less the same man, but he had lost his wife and hated that he had to rely on us. (Not to mention that he already possessed those traits and living with him only made me more aware of them.)

On some level, I knew all of those things, but I still resented him, even hated him at times. And I hated that. Years passed, and I watched him gradually become weaker physically and mentally. The first few years he was with us, he could walk down the street to the nearby church; he could be engaged by movies and television. The walks became shorter and shorter and finally ended. Visual media could no longer hold his attention. He began to forget more and more. Having conversations with him became futile endeavors.

Watching him degrade, I started feeling more sympathy for him and seeing him more fully. I began to find humor in his quirks and better understood the interaction between his personality and his aging. He was still all the things I loved about him and all the things I couldn’t stand. This summer I spent a considerable amount of time with him — taking him to virtually every diner in northern New Jersey, just to get him out of the house. He was insufferable in trying to get me to take him places, but once we left, he was grateful. We didn’t talk much, but I could tell he was glad to be with me.

Who’s to say I’ll be any better in my nineties, if I even live that long? To what extent do any of us get to control how we age — whether we’ll be a burden to our families or retain our independence? I doubt much at all. My dad’s dad, my other grandpa, lived alone in Queens, NY for nearly 18 years; his mind stayed sharp, and my parents called him almost every night. He only needed our help in the last months of his life, and his decline was relatively swift. Whether he could have used our help in the years prior to his death, I don’t know, but he managed to convince us he didn’t. I assume it’s desirable not to need help from others in old age, and I respect my late grandpa for his resilience, but there is also strength in being able to accept help from others.

I look at my parents, both 58, and wonder how long it will be before I have to take care of them. They generally take good physical care of themselves — my dad in better shape than most men his age and my mom working hard to lose weight. Where on that old age spectrum will they fall? I wonder whether I’ll do as good job as they have with their parents. Mine have exuded patience and attentiveness, and while I believe they have passed on those traits to me, I don’t know if it will be enough.

All of this I consider as my grandpa lies in the hospital having just had a successful angioplasty and soon to receive a pacemaker, something that kept my grandma alive for years. I hope it will do the same for him, even though I wonder how long he will be able to live with my parents as he declines. Part of me hopes that he dies before a nursing home becomes necessary. I feel guilty about that, because I don’t really know what he wants, and I don’t think he’s capable of knowing what he wants. I just don’t want him to suffer too much. I guess that’s what I hope for me, too.

What’s news?

You were telling me there’s just not a lot happening on campus for your student newspaper to cover. I think you have exactly the opposite problem. There’s so much going on that your busy, understaffed organization couldn’t possibly begin to cover it all.

You just have to step back and look at the news more broadly. Which is the right way to look at it. It’s the right way to look at most things.

I think it’s so awesome you’re going to that national college press event in Philly. It’s probably going to be full of inspiration about story ideas (and plenty of other things). And like I told you, I think your paper’s been on a roll this week — that story about the counseling center, for example. Your colleagues did great work there.

Meantime, though, let’s do the exercise. It’s good practice.

You’re at an institution with a budget of roughly $320 million. That’s more than approximately 30 nations. You’re in a community of nearly 8,400 students (including graduate), plus probably 2,000 employees (I can’t find the exact number, but TCNJ, roughly the same size but with a smaller budget, has 1,500).

What’s more, unlike most “cities” of comparable size, yours is filled with fascinating people. And if that’s not cool enough, since you’re a public institution, much of the nitty-gritty financial and other stuff happening there is public information. All you have to do is research it.

In HR, people talk about 360° job performance reviews. (It means that you should be reviewed by your boss, your colleagues, your subordinates, and yourself — not just your boss.) It’s sorta like that with news. Think of where you are. Then look forward and back… up and down… inside and out… into the future and the past… at every venue on campus… you, compared with others.

Forward and back. Someone said X was going to happen. Did it? If so, what were the results? If not, why not?

Example #1: several years ago there was a campus committee organized to make sure the lowest-paid people got raises. But these folks claim many of its recommendations weren’t implemented, and as of a few years ago, 75% of your housekeepers were making at or less than $21,995 for full-time work (someone’s calculated the “living wage” for a family in your region to be $36,644). Is all that true? What’s up with that? (I wonder if you might’ve covered this issue at some point in the last year or two. But I can’t check at the moment — your site’s down.)

Example #2: In February, the College announced a partnership to deliver its first MOOC. It’s been eight months. What kind of progress has been made? (I’m interested because I want to take it! <grin>) Is there an expected delivery date yet? Are they trying to build everything from scratch, or are they using an existing platform like Coursera, edX, or CourseSites (Blackboard)? Who’s made commitments for staffing and support? More broadly, according to that linked article, you’ve got someone in charge of e-Learning — what are they up to?

Up and down. Up to graduate school and the workplace. Down to the high school people coming in. After graduation: What are your grads really doing? How does the performance of your career center really measure up, compared with comparable institutions? What percentage of graduating seniors envision themselves making financial contributions to the college when asked? Do any graduates go to work there? What’s that like? How many graduates stay there for graduate school? What’s that like?

What’s going on in your graduate schools, anyhow? I’ve noticed that hardly any undergraduate student newspapers cover the graduate schools at their institutions. That’s a shame. There’s tons of great stuff going on there, plus the undergraduate reporters and editors might learn some things they could really use in shaping their own career plans.

How’s the law school dealing with the collapse of the law business? Are they specializing? Are admissions up, down, sideways? Have the median LSAT scores of their new students changed? What’s the education school doing about K-12 education reform and Common Core? Is Marine Sciences seeing global warming impacts in your region? Does the business school think it’s actually possible to teach business ethics in a way that’ll stick? What do they think of the recent noisy debate about whether “disruptive innovation” is a real thing or counterproductive hype poorly grounded in real research?

Down to undergraduate admissions: How are you guys really doing at recruiting non-traditional, first-in-the-family, poor kids? There’s an organization, QuestBridge, that works with UVA and lots of privates to help highly-qualified low-income kids get access to great universities. I wonder why your College isn’t working with them. Might that change? Are there disadvantages to what QuestBridge does? Does your admissions office think it has better alternatives? Then, how do you stack up compared with comparable institutions? With falling state support, how need-blind/need-aware are you really?

BTW, The New York Times has tons of higher education coverage, including a great regular special section called Education Life. The Washington Post does quite a bit, too (their reporter is Nick Anderson). Maybe these guys tweet; if so, you should follow them — they have lots of story ideas you can steal).

Inside and out. Speaking of your region, what are the relationships between the College and the local community, region, state, world? Who are the real influencers in that relationship? How does someone get onto the Board of Visitors, anyhow? How has your President kept the politicians pretty happy when the previous guy couldn’t?

The College works with off-campus businesses to promote economic development — how’s that working? How does an off-campus business get that help? Are there examples of companies who’ve really benefited? Is the program working as well as it could? (I picked up this idea just from browsing the College website. Sometimes you find good stuff there.)

How do national politics affect your readers (and vice versa)? Last year was a pretty active year in your state and on your campus. Wouldn’t it be interesting to go back and talk to some of the activists on both sides and see if they’re involved in campaigns again? Except for the seniors, most of ’em are still around. If they’re not involved, why not? Now that it’s over, what did they learn from the experience? What would they suggest to people who might follow in their footsteps?

The Democrats made hay on the political issue of whether students should have more opportunities to refinance their loans at lower rates. Wouldn’t it be interesting to ask your local congressman where he stands on this? If he doesn’t support Elizabeth Warren’s proposal, why not? Does he have a better alternative? Does he believe that any form of debt relief is unfair or inappropriate? There are plenty of times where your students would benefit from knowing where their elected representatives stand on an issue of importance to them.

Every venue, every constituency. What’s really happening in the classroom? For example, the College says 80% of its undergraduate credit hours are taught by full-time profs, not adjuncts. That’s pretty damn impressive. What’s the trend? Are they continuing to hold the line on that, or are you facing creeping “adjunct-itis”? What’s life like for an adjunct there? Are they running around to the local community college to teach at night? Do they get an office at the College? How are they selected? Is there ever a tenure track for them?

NPR Planet Money just did a great segment on textbooks. Textbook prices have soared but students have found ways to control their costs (used, foreign, rented textbooks, libraries, or simply not reading what they’re supposed to). OK, you guys probably all knew that instinctively, but maybe there’s another angle on the textbook story?

The (admittedly loophole ridden) federal law on textbooks says profs are supposed to specify their textbook assignments at registration time. But you know from personal experience that some don’t. At spring registration time, spotcheck — is that rare or common? Do the profs know the law?

Or you could identify the profs with the most expensive textbooks and find out why they made that choice. Habit? Were the other options even more expensive? Were there free, open source alternatives? Do any of your profs assign their own textbooks? How does that fit with professional and legal conflict-of-interest rules? Do any of them donate royalties, as some profs do? What percentage of your profs use the expensive electronic extras the publishers dangle in front of them? If “few,” is it OK for people to consider older editions?

What’s happening in research? In many disciplines, someone keeps track of the profs who are having the greatest impact (as measured by citations by their peers in academic papers). Which of your profs are closest to the top of those lists? What work got them there? What’s so exciting about it? What are these star profs looking for from the undergraduates they work with?

Speaking of undergraduates, every year the College fundraises for something like 100 student research projects every year. I bet some of last year’s turned out to be amazing. For example, you had someone in Europe studying the Scottish and Catalonian secession movements. I bet they’d be fascinating to talk to. You could probably pick out 10 really remarkable people to interview without breaking a sweat.

(Come to think of it, that probably wouldn’t be a bad reporting job for you, yourself. You’d get to meet a lot of cool people, and learn how to interview and write profiles — all in a pretty low-pressure situation where you’re not asking people why they killed their mothers. You could tape a bunch of interviews and then edit them into shape whenever you had a little free time. Anyhow…)

How do your profs swim with (or against) the intellectual currents of the moment? For example, how do your economics profs react to Jeff Madrick’s new argument in Seven Bad Ideas that mainstream economics has profoundly damaged the US and the world? (He has one or two things to say about the Mankiw textbook you use.) What do your government profs think of the impact of social media on elections — or about the recent controversies about social science research done on Facebook?

If you don’t have anyone on staff who can intelligently interview on questions like these, you can go to the departments and find someone.

Behind the scenes. What goes into making things happen? What’s the rehearsal process like for a student play? What’s a day in the life of the football coach in May?

One last thing you might do more of is service journalism — news your audience can use to improve their own lives. You do some of this when you tell people about good places to eat off campus. But you could probably do more. For example, see the first paragraph of item #4 in this piece on student finances. I’ll bet some of your students could really benefit from learning about these options for reducing their higher education borrowing costs. Maybe you could interview someone in your financial aid office?

Lots of stuff. Maybe some good ideas, maybe some not so good. Truth is, though, you guys have the same problem that faces basically every news outlet in America. You don’t have enough resources to do all of what you should be doing.

But you can think more broadly about resources, too. For example, lots of other news outlets are pursuing partnerships and user-generated content.

Link up with profs and students. Some of these ideas might be research projects — maybe you can recruit in classrooms and get some support from social science people who know stats and know how to do this stuff. Maybe work with the government or sociology department to organize a random-sample student survey. You could get weeks of content out of that. What would you love to quantify about the attitudes and behavior of your students? (Me, I’m curious how y’all stack up to these statistics about how much time college students spend studying (see p. 97).)

Maybe students are writing papers that could be adapted into opinion pieces. Who knows, maybe there’s content being generated in your very own non-fiction writing class that would be perfect for your opinion pages. (And don’t forget the stuff happening on the fiction and poetry side of the house. Maybe you’ve got a little more room for that kind of content, too.)

Here in New Jersey, our daily paper, The Record, invites people to send travel photos with captions; they publish whole pages of the stuff. You could do something like that with people returning from (or still away at) study abroad semesters. People would love to see pictures of their departed friends, combined with paragraphs about what they’ve learned/are learning from the experience.

Who knows, you might even have opportunities to partner with, and syndicate or trade content with off-campus media sources — like that public radio station just down the street. Maybe one or two of you could even find yourself on air occasionally — not a bad bit of experience!

I’m just saying that you clearly need to recruit more resources — maybe some of that involves opening up the paper to more voices, on staff and off. It’s a great way to build engagement and support for what you’re doing, in print and online.

You know, that cliché about thinking out of the box was actually a helluva good idea before people blathered it into meaninglessness. That’s really the broader point I’m trying to make, of course. You can step back and think more broadly about what you personally want to write about next. Or where you might find an internship. Which is why I’ve spent so much time on this — to encourage you to look further afield for possibilities, whatever you might be doing.