Read this if you’re old…

…or if somebody you know is old, and could stand to hear it from someone to whom they’ll actually listen.

Old people, you are becoming children all over again. This is merely a reflection, based on my observations of both children and old people. Several similar behaviors are evident, including an unwillingness to listen to reason and an extremely narrow and self-centered worldview. (Let’s not discuss the whole “diaper” component…) Children are wired to behave this way as a means of gradually understanding the world around them, in order to assimilate new information without suffering from sensory overload. They just don’t get that they are a piece of the whole, rather than its core.

Many elderly, however, behave this way (I think) out of a sense of fear — fear of becoming obsolete or of being trapped in a world that is, for many, no longer familiar. Neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia no doubt play a large part in this type of response to the world, but by and large it’s a function of the narrowing of the known world. At a certain age the world stops expanding and, as one confronts the inevitability of death, contracts on itself until you, the elderly, are comfortably lodged in a bubble of beliefs and notions that remains impervious to outside influence — even when those notions are potentially more harmful to you than letting the world in could ever be.

The loss of independence is also a primary trigger of the fear response. Even if you have no idea where you are or have forgotten where you are supposed to be going, the thought of losing the fantasy of control is an unacceptable, painful suggestion that the world — your world — no longer needs your cooperation to function.

Lest all this pseudo-psychobabble seem foreign or ridiculous, let me move to the point of this little rant: Last month, I went to my cousin’s graduation party. Also invited was my grandmother from the other side of the family, she of the menorah debacle, because she attends my cousin’s church (and, of course, because she’s my family). I arrived to see my grandmother attempting to parallel park, in a spot that had more than enough room for her to get in and out. She couldn’t do it, though, so my mom jumped out of my car to go help her. There were other examples of her aging not so well throughout the party, but the kicker came when it was time for her to leave…

Small note: when my mom parked Grandma’s car, she put it directly in front of the house and left more than enough room on either end of the car for her to easily just cut the wheel and maneuver it out without constant adjustment. Apparently, Grandma slammed on the gas to reverse, then slammed on the brakes to avoid the car behind her by less than an inch. (Reminds me of driving school, really…) She then somehow managed to get out of the spot and back to her house, which I only know because we went over there to visit her. After she left, my mom’s cousin came over to us and commiserated: “She drives like that all the time at church…please tell [my father] to take her keys.”

So we told him. And he sighed and said that he knew it was coming. And he actually had the conversation with her, which was a little surprising to me…but then, as he told us, he decided not to demand that she give them up because “they’re a symbol of her independence.”

And there, dear old people, is where you really start to piss me off.

I get that you don’t want to feel like you’re sucking the lives out of the people around you with your needs and demands. I understand that it’s a point of pride for you to be able to drive around without a chauffeur, just as it is for the sixteen-year-old who is holding their very first license after years of waiting. However, if you are such a danger to the people around you that it’s safer for me to walk around barefoot in dark clothing in the worst parts of Cleveland at 3 am on a Saturday than it is for you to get behind the wheel of a car, then it’s time to do the wise adult thing and agree to hand over the keys. When your argument for continuing to drive is that your mother didn’t give it up until a judge ordered her to, you’ve already proven my point.

So please, please, take a step outside your bubble and think of the others whose lives you are putting at risk out of sheer stubbornness. It could be someone’s grandchild that you hit, or you could be the one to not make it — and while we all accept that we will lose our grandparents, that’s not the way we’d choose for you to go. Those in the middle generation, all of our parents who are now caring for their parents, take heed of this and be willing to take that stand. You’ll be doing the world a favor.

The weekend dilemma

So of course, this Sunday is Father’s Day. It also happens to be the day of a midsize family picnic with my mom’s side of the family, since that was the only day that my cousin could reserve the park. While my parents are separated, over the last seven years they’ve built up a more friendly relationship which means that Dad is usually invited for the holidays and is often invited to gatherings such as the upcoming picnic.

Unfortunately, my dad has a massive ball and chain (more like a noose that tightens every day) — his mother, my other grandmother. When my grandfather died in 2002, my grandmother turned to my dad as the “only person” she had left in her life and became a constant drain on his time and energy. Yes, to be disregarded as a source of support and comfort to a family member who I loved very dearly at that time is insulting, but the worst part of it for me was that we had always had a shaky foundation in our home life, with our dad, and now what little time he otherwise had for us was being taken up in its entirety by a needy and bitter geriatric. On a Saturday afternoon it could be 2:00 pm and he would be sleeping — “Dad, can we do X activity or go Y place?” “Later, I’m sleeping.” But let her call and he would be up in minutes to go over there and do her bidding.

Perhaps I shouldn’t begrudge her his help to the extent that I have; after all, she lost a husband and a son within three years of one another, and in terms of her original nuclear family unit my dad really was the only one left. Still, the problems only got worse when my parents split in 2004 and he moved in with her full-time. Since then, her overall condition has deteriorated to a point that she is hardly recognizable as the grandmother with whom I grew up, aside from her propensity to tell the same stories over and over again.

The last year or so has been an ongoing saga with her. She is needy and whiny and belligerent, so convinced of her own rightness in situations where her memory has clearly failed her that she is willing to make liars of everyone around her just to emerge the victor. I keep my distance and try very hard to have no contact with her whatsoever…but of course, the only way for my dad to come to this family picnic is if he brings along his own penance.

Maybe it means I’m immature, and maybe some people will castigate me for being less than totally sympathetic to the sufferings of an old and senile woman, but speak to her for a minute and you’ll understand where I’m coming from when I say that it’s a tough call whether or not to even attend, even if it means that I don’t get to see my dad.

Oh well. At least my future in-laws will be there.