Paul Prather: I hope to choose joy rather than rage against age

Dad's footsteps are getting harder to follow

Contributing columnistApril 28, 2012 

Paul Prather

I've turned 56. That's not terribly old, but it's a lot older than I used to be, older than I ever intended to be.

If I'd had my druthers, I'd have stayed 21. That was a good age.

Recently, my wife, Liz, and I were guest speakers in a journalism class at the local high school.

When it was my turn to talk, I got this uncomfortable feeling that none of the kids understood anything I was saying. I was trying to regale them with tales from my bygone days as a newspaper reporter. All I got back were blank stares.

Then it struck me that most of these teenagers were born about 1996. They probably had never read a newspaper — not the kind that's printed on paper. All they knew were Web sites and Twitter and texting.

Suddenly, I felt overtaken by geezer-hood. I discreetly looked down to make sure I wasn't wearing my khakis up under my armpits.

Also recently, my family and I placed my dad in an assisted-living facility.

He's 81, and he's been deteriorating since my mom passed away in 2003. He started falling. His eyesight worsened. Occasionally he got disoriented.

As a family, we tried mightily to accommodate him.

First, my sister, Cathi, and her husband, Tracy, bought a house across the street from Dad's so Cathi could watch out for him. Instead of being grateful, Dad loudly resented the intrusion. He didn't want anybody looking over his shoulder.

It caused me to consider my own future. I wondered whether I would oppose my son, John, someday if he decided I needed him as a neighbor.

Dad kept going downhill.

Next, my nephew, Will, and his wife, Stephanie, offered to take him in. Initially Dad seemed all for this. He'd helped raise Will and emotionally was closer to Will than to anyone else. Will and Stephanie fixed him his own apartment in their basement. It looked like the perfect situation for him.

It wasn't. From the day he moved in, he interpreted all attempts to help him as insults to his freedom or intelligence. If Will tried to balance his checkbook or warned him not to trip on a curb, Dad got furious.

Then, we had to take his car keys away because he'd become a menace on the road. He was nearly blind by this time, and was running red lights and causing fender benders and, at one point, got picked up by the police.

We explained we were concerned he'd injure himself or run over a child, but to him, once again, we were interfering, robbing him of his autonomy. He said we didn't love him. He told friends we'd mistreated him.

We finally moved him to that assisted-living facility.

It's spacious, clean and comfortable, and the staff members seem attentive and long-suffering — qualities my dad requires. He has new neighbors his own age. There are tons of activities he can take part in, if he chooses. We'll see.

My father has been tested for dementia. The results were inconclusive.

I don't believe senility is his whole problem, though.

There's no way to say this without just saying it.

A big part of his problem is his raw "rage against the dying of the light," in Dylan Thomas' poetic phrase. Thomas praised this angry resistance by the elderly.

To me, raging against the inevitable is overrated. A calm acceptance might be healthier for everyone involved.

This rage against age is a family trait.

As my grandmother, Dad's mom, grew older, she acted exactly as he does. They both were impatient, high-strung people to begin with, and both lived for decades in a vocal dread of getting old, long before they actually were old. They seemed to think that becoming elderly was the worst fate that could befall them.

The older they did get, the more frustrated and fearful they became, and the more they inflicted their unhappiness on others.

I'm not writing this to denigrate my father, whom I love and who has done great good in his life. He's led thousands to faith in God, founded a vibrant church I still lead and was broad-minded on social issues such as race before it was trendy.

I'm writing this because I'm getting older myself, and I too am scared. I'm scared that, being their descendant, I'll age as ungracefully as Dad and Granny did.

I'm not afraid of growing old and feeble. Rather, I'm afraid of growing bitter or self-pitying because I'm old and feeble.

I don't know how much of my father's contrariness is beyond his control and how much is his own decision to dwell on his losses.

Like him, I want desperately to believe that, as I decline, I'll retain some choices. I couldn't care less whether those choices involve driving a car, though. If I'm a danger, get me off the highway.

But I want to think I'll be able to choose joy rather than unhappiness.

I pray I'll be one of those gentle old geezers who still embraces life, acknowledges his limitations and thanks those trying to take care of him.

The troubling thing is: I don't know.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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