June 5, 2011

USA: Growing Old in America - Irreplaceable Losses

EAST BRUNSWICK, New Jersey / EastBrunswickPatch.com / June 4, 2011

It Takes A Village

Growing Old in America: Irreplaceable Losses

The friendships I am losing have taken decades to mature. Petty quarrels have been worked out and personal limitations accepted. These people are irreplaceable.

I lost my oldest friend Michael recently, and life has not been the same.

At age 68, I am learning firsthand the enormous emotional impact of loss for older folks. When I was younger I knew when people, places, and things reached their expiration date, that I still had time to find substitutes.

Today, I realize this is no longer true.

The friendships I am losing have taken decades to mature. Petty quarrels have been worked out and personal limitations accepted. We have respect for the journey each of us has taken and how strong life has made us. We can say anything to each other.

In short, these people are irreplaceable.


Michael and I met more than a half-century ago as college freshmen at what is now the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Everyone teased us that I was a sophisticated city girl and he an upstate bumpkin. We were so different! I was struggling to understand my Jewish roots, and he wrestled with his Russian Orthodox Catholic upbringing. He was a conservative geek, majoring in physics, and I was to graduate in sociology, edit the college newspaper, and help lead the first campus revolution of the 1960s.    Cemetery. Credit Meg Donahue

Our differences didn't matter; we became close friends almost immediately.

When my father developed cancer and died during our junior year, Michael was there for me, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Senior year, I would ride the back of his motorcycle to his off-campus apartment, where he would make delicious home-cooked meals from scratch.

Graduation had us go our separate geographical ways to pursue advanced degrees. We wrote letters and saw each other during holidays. Eventually, I came to Rutgers to complete my graduate work; Michael enlisted in the navy, rose to the rank of captain, and earned several medals during the Vietnam War.

Many years later, I was one of the first people to whom Michael came out. I still have a photo, taken in San Francisco, of his commitment ceremony to Emory, his life partner of 37 years. He was thrilled to finally be living in harmony with his sexual orientation and joyous at finding such a wonderful man to share his heart.

He remained my dearest friend, sending flowers at the birth of each of my children, gifts on holidays, and long letters sharing his new life. The Internet allowed us more frequent communications and when his illness became painful and debilitating, we exchanged several emails daily.

Two weeks before he passed away, Michael shared with me his readiness to die:

"Between you, me, and the fence post, I am discouraged. I am chronically tired. All I want to do is lay down. My chronic pelvic, hip, thigh, and knee pain is unrelenting. The only med that temporarily helps is very rough on the stomach. I would not be unhappy to shed this mortal coil. It is too much already."

Still, his death came as a shock, and three months later I still can't believe he is gone.

Aging Means Loss

I know that I am not alone in experiencing such profound loss at this stage of my life. Being a senior citizen inevitably carries with it:
• Changes in physical health
• Loss of job and career status
• Loss of status as full-time mom or dad
• "Empty-nest syndrome" as children move away from home
• Loss in mobility as driving becomes difficult
• Difficulty doing routine home maintenance chores, such as mowing and snow-blowing
• Loss of family residence, if assisted living becomes necessary

It is no wonder that a recent government study revealed a 49 percent rise in emergency room visits for drug-related suicide attempts by females age 50 and older. Or that suicide rates for males are highest among those aged 75 and older.

Talking and Listening

I believe there are many older people in South Brunswick with similar experiences. I share mine in the hope that others will share theirs, and we, as a community, can figure out how to make this stage of life a little easier.

Meanwhile, here are some signs that you or a loved one may be experiencing debilitating psychological loss or losses:
• Changes in sleeping or eating habits
• Unexplained apathy or fatigue
• Trouble concentrating or making a decision
• Crying for no apparent reason
• Withdrawal from normal social activities and family• Loss of interest in personal appearance
• Loss of interest in hobbies or other types of work
• Increased use of alcohol or other drugs.

If the situation is not critical, take advantage of the therapeutic power of human interaction. Talk or write out your pain and share it with others. When someone shares his or her story, listen and empathize, rather than minimize what that person is feeling.

If you feel you or a loved one might be actively suicidal, immediately contact your doctor, a mental health professional, or go to the local emergency room. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available around the clock.

The above will not bring back loved ones, substitute for the necessary grieving process, or instantly fill the deep hole of loss. What it will do is release the healing force of acknowledged mourning.

It isn't a solution, but it is a first step that each and every one of us can take.

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