Friday, May 17, 2019


In the past I've tried to plan for old age and had the advantage of ten years watching people age in congregations where they didn't know I was watching them.  The years were 1978 to 1988.  I went to seminary at age 40 mostly on the denomination's dime, and rode circuit in Montana from 1982 to 1985 on money from a little pot the Universalists had hidden at merger because didn't want it to be spent on another big urban church.  The congregations in question were "fellowships", an invention meant to support groups with no minister at all.  The first prob I had was convincing them that they should have a minister.  As one man said, "I can listen to better speeches on YouTube for free."  These were progressives who HAD YouTube or the equivalent in early days.

One of the arguments was support for those with health needs, though the only training we got in seminary was Clinical Pastoral Education and a bit of ethics about suicide.  The first thing I learned from actual aging people was that no two were the same.  The second thing was that there was usually no steady decline, but rather a crisis, a struggle, and then a resolution that allowed things to go back to near normal.  In fact, everyone pretended it WAS normal.

The next thing I learned was that UU's are secretive about illness.  Even my own mother resisted the idea of her Presbyterian minister knowing anything about her illness, though she was reassured to have visits and prayers when my father died.  I outwitted her once near her end when I asked for the hospital chaplain and that brisk older woman made a real connection.

My mother's main worry in the last years was that she would die on a sidewalk and her skirt would fly up.  She forgot that at her age she mostly wore slacks.

I was constantly in a bind between people dying secretly (they thought) and their friends and do-gooders insisting that I go visit them and second-guess their treatment.  There was a latent hope that I would know something that would "save" them.  Sometimes connections help -- a big part of a minister's role is connections among clergy and with other kinds of professionals.  (When we HAD real professionals.)  Bob Scriver was saved from blindness by a connection through a PhD researcher/customer connection.  I felt I had to keep up on medical advances.

Sometimes the difficulty was the morality of suicide.  Old highly educated people, who have been married for a long time and have no children, feel that when their work is done, they can simply leave.  They have no illusions about death -- in fact, find it useful.  Usually no one had any idea until the bodies were found.  There might be instructions about the house, like when batteries ran out and where to shut off the water.  They were able to make sophisticated references to historical and literary thought about suicide.  These were a kind of window to what they were thinking.

In the beginning things like AIDS or fatal car crashes were so abrupt that the real task was stabilizing the grieving people.  If the dead were known and loved, efforts might blur or sharpen, depending on one's character and experience.  One's own experience with aging can be research or can be denied.  Or both.  At least most of us were too sophisticated and anti-materialistic to try send people to Disneyland before they died.

Aging is squarely in the middle of the tension between the individual and the community.  I made the choice to be solitary in 1999 but live in a village where the community is always monitoring.  A high proportion is old and many are rock-bottom poor.  Sometimes there is family that helps and just as often there is family that sucks out the last of the prosperity -- not just money but taking up space, creating chaos, playing emotional games.  Earlier restraints slip away, frustration and rage mount up.

At first people looked at a map and saw Glacier Park and (ding, ding, ding) a free hotel.  One visit cured them.  I'm an hour from the Park entrance and this little old house has a leaky shack for a guest bedroom (did then -- now the cots are hidden under storage) which is not free from mosquitoes.  There's no dishwasher, clothes washer, dryer, or enough towels.  The kitchen sink doesn't drain.

But that's what I mean about crises that resolve.  The drain line from the sink to the sewer tie-in had been invented by an amateur in the first place, patched on the cheap several times since (a lot of stove pipe wire and duct tape), took a half-hour to drain dishwater.  One of the advantages of old age is having established a good credit record.  The plumber -- this time a "real" one with two years of trade school -- spent a half-day under the floor.  He used PVC instead of metal.  

Tuxie visited her natal totally dark birth den briefly, and came up with strange things stuck to her whiskers, but shrugged at the non-attraction.  The half-grown kittens, Ditto and Ditto (I can't tell them apart), sat side-by-side and gazed in amazement at the tall plumber.  He gazed back, calmly.  

One of my jobs as an animal control officer was to take into protective custody the pets of people who had died alone at home.  The first time I did it, the dead person was an old man who had fixed breakfast, had a heart attack, and died with his face in the scrambled eggs.  I thought I was calm until I almost passed out.  The supervising police officer was sympathetic but amused.  I put the two old fat dogs in the truck where they, feeling safe and relieved, emptied their bladders which were remarkably big.  I should have walked them around a bit.

I'll be eighty this fall.  I do not look eighty because I never smoked and wasn't out in the sun much -- in the years that I was, it rained all the time --so there are few wrinkles.  I've lost 3 inches in height.  The main prob is diabetes and forgetting to take my pills.  Also, regarding the possibility of
having to pay $1,000 per dose for insulin when a two hour drive to Canada would mean $8 for the same dose. 

This shoulder dislocated on Ground Hog's Day persists in terms of pain and limited use, inability to lift weight or steer properly, plus hints that nerves and veins are affected.  Along with that is the consequences of painkillers -- just aspirin, Advil, Tylenol, etc. but in high doses.  They healed an inflamed spot on one leg that docs weren't interested in.  Few things are all bad, everything will pass, even death.

Now I'm going to go wash dishes and take great pleasure in watching the water go smoothly down the drain.

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