Sunday, February 12, 2012

Daddy Issues - The Atlantic

RECENTLY, A COLLEAGUE at my radio station asked me, in the most cursory way, as we were waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, how I was. To my surprise, in a motion as automatic as the reflex of a mussel being poked, my body bent double and I heard myself screaming:


Startled, and subtly stepping back to put a bit more distance between us, my co-worker asked what I meant.

"What I mean, Rob, is that even if, while howling like a banshee, I tore my 91-year-old father limb from limb with my own hands in the town square, I believe no jury of my peers would convict me. Indeed, if they knew all the facts, I believe any group of sensible, sane individuals would actually roll up their shirtsleeves and pitch in."

As I hyperventilated over the coffeemaker, scattering Splenda packets and trying to unclaw my curled fingers, I realized it had finally happened: at 49, I had become a Kafka character. I am thinking of "The Judgment," in which the protagonist's supposedly old and frail father suddenly kicks off his bedclothes with surprisingly energetic—even girlish—legs and, standing ghoulishly tall in the bed, delivers a speech so horrifying, so unexpected, and so perfectly calculated to destroy his son's spirit that his son—who until this point has been having a rather pleasant day writing a letter to a friend, amidst a not unpleasant year marked by continuing financial prosperity and a propitious engagement to a well-placed young woman—immediately jumps off a bridge.

Clearly, my nonagenarian father and I have what have come to be known as "issues," which I will enumerate shortly. By way of introduction, however, let us begin by considering A Bittersweet Season, by Jane Gross. A journalist for 29 years at The New York Times and the founder of a Timesblog called The New Old Age, Gross is hardly Kafkaesque. An ultra-responsible daughter given to drawing up to-do lists for caregivers and pre-loosening caps on Snapple bottles, Gross undertook the care of her mother in as professional a way as possible. She was on call for emergencies and planned three steps ahead by consulting personally with each medical specialist. Like the typical U.S. family caregiver for an elder (who is, statistics suggest, a woman of about 50), Gross worked full-time, but (atypically) she was unencumbered by spouse or children. She had the help, too, of her child-free brother, a calm, clear-headed sort given to greeting his sister with a quiet, reassuring "The eagle has landed." What could go wrong?

Plenty. As Gross herself flatly describes it, in her introduction:

 In the space of three years … my mother's ferocious independence gave way to utter reliance on her two adult children. Garden-variety aches and pains became major health problems; halfhearted attention no longer sufficed, and managing her needs from afar became impossible … We were flattened by the enormous demands on our time, energy, and bank accounts; the disruption to our professional and personal lives; the fear that our time in this parallel universe would never end and the guilt for wishing that it would … We knew nothing about Medicaid spend-downs, in-hospital versus out-of-hospital "do not resuscitate" orders, Hoyer lifts, motorized wheelchairs, or assistive devices for people who can neither speak nor type. We knew nothing about "pre-need consultants," who handle advance payment for the funerals of people who aren't dead yet, or "feeders," whose job it is to spoon pureed food into the mouths of men and women who can no longer hold a utensil.

However ghoulish, it is a world we will all soon get to know well, argues Gross: owing to medical advancements, cancer deaths now peak at age 65 and kill off just 20 percent of older Americans, while deaths due to organ failure peak at about 75 and kill off just another 25 percent, so the norm for seniors is becoming a long, drawn-out death after 85, requiring ever-increasing assistance for such simple daily activities as eating, bathing, and moving.

This is currently the case for approximately 40 percent of Americans older than 85, the country's fastest-growing demographic, which is projected to more than double by 2035, from about 5 million to 11.5 million. And at that point, here comes the next wave—77 million of the youngest Baby Boomers will be turning 70.