All the recent aging of the parents in the family – my father, succumbing to Parkinson’s; my mother, growing more dependent by the day from who knows what ailment; my mother-in-law, becoming more and more childlike (unfortunately, a two year-old child); my father-in-law, who feels a sense of control slipping away from him and displaces his anxiety into an obsession with “organizing his desk”…. All this recent aging has got me thinking about the future.
What will my husband and I be like when we get to be that age? Will my husband beat himself up, as his father does, as my body fails, for his failure to convince me to exercise at the level he does? Or will he be the one to deteriorate first, and will I be the one trying to convince a stubbornly willful spouse that the time has come for me to stop taking care of him, and pay someone to do it? And who will take care of us, since we have no children and our nieces and nephews will either be busy raising their own children, or incapable of taking care of us?
Everyone that we love and everything we have is of the nature of change, we cannot escape its loss. We come here empty-handed and we will leave empty-handed.
It’s easy, when you’re confronted with the stark picture of aging parents, to fall into anxiety at the thought that someday you will also face those same challenges. And to take each example where you cannot remember the name of the obscure character actor in the film you saw once, ten years ago, as a reason to start worrying about cognitive decline.
But we cannot live our lives this way. We must focus on today, take each day, each moment, one at a time, and live in the present.
That is not to say that we should cast our lots to the wind and eat and drink and lay about watching TV as if there is no tomorrow. That is still thinking about tomorrow, but rejecting it, refusing to progress, distracting ourselves from the idea of our mortality by acting as if it doesn’t matter.
Taking each day as it comes means making decisions, one moment, one day at a time. Deciding whether to eat healthy foods, whether to exercise, whether to drift through social media or whether to interact with friends, as each opportunity comes. And making those decisions with the understanding that they are not just for today but for tomorrow and for the future when we are our parents’ age.
I listen to my husband coach his mother on physical therapy exercises by Skype every day, knowing that there are some days that she gets more exercise and watches less TV than I do, or he does. And that, if she had gotten this much exercise and stimulation when she was our age, or our nieces’ and nephews’ ages, that she would be in a better place today than she is, both mentally and physically. The habits that her children and her husband and her caregiver are trying to build into place would already be in place, fixed in a mind that holds hard to long-term habits but fights new ones.
Which makes it much easier for me to turn off the TV, roll out the yoga mat, and build my own habits. Because worrying about the future is less productive than doing something, right now, to change it.