By David Heitz
I think the feeling that you’re “growing older” is a state of mind more than anything else. For me, burying my last living parent this fall inevitably forced me to look at my own mortality. How can I make sure I will be buried in the only plot located next to dad? Is it time to pre-arrange my own funeral? There never is going to be a time when you feel good about doing that.
I have no spouse or children of my own, and no relatives who I could expect to handle my final affairs.
Who do I leave my things to? I don’t think it hit me until a few weeks ago that I’m going to need a will.
I don’t think it’s that unusual for a gay guy in his late 40s to be flying completely solo like myself in mid-life. Being a caregiver is completely isolating, and as much as people want to think differently, until you have done it, you have no idea what it really means.
It quite literally almost killed me.
Add to it that I’m just under two years sober and have left behind a much different lifestyle than I live now, and it seems like life has been turned upside down. But, in most ways, turned upside down for the better.
This isn’t about being macabre or obsessing on death. Getting older is just the reality of life. Gay people like myself live in a cultural community where, sadly, aging is not celebrated. In fact, aging is a reality we tend to ignore – despise, even. Our youth-centric, narcissistic culture is not kind to its gay elders. And I think that’s the most important thing for gay people to keep in mind as we age.
Caregiving is hard work. Gay people rallied around a generation who died of AIDS, for sure. But gay people like myself are going to age just like everyone else these days: We may live to 100 with our minds gone by 80. What happens if we require around the clock care? Who will do it? Who will pay for it? Will our needs be met? There is no financial help available for long-term care of an elderly person until they are completely broke.
Related: Why Caregivers for people with Dementia often die before the patient themselves
Issues like these are the reasons Caregiver Relief exists, of course. Caregiving is hard work. After all, many people who care for those with dementia die before the patient themselves.
Growing up is a state of mind, too
Hopefully by the time you’ve reached the state of mind of “growing older,” you also feel like you have “grown up.” I think I sort of reached both of those places concurrently. I have learned in the past few years that I can survive just about anything. I have learned that I am much stronger than I ever gave myself credit for. Advocating for my dad’s care once his mind was completely gone, making sure he was clean every day, not lonely, and in good spirits if possible, took a huge, huge toll on me. But it also made me strong.
I know that I don’t ever want to end up in “a facility” when I get old. But in truth, the only way to avoid it – especially as a gay person with no family of his own – is to stay as healthy as possible. I now completely understand that I simply cannot rely on anyone in this world other than myself. Nor would I want to. Whenever I have strayed from what I know to be best for me, and instead listened to someone else, I’ve really screwed up.
I recently ordered the book “The Gay Man’s Guide to Getting Older” (Alyson Books, 2002). I’m not very impressed with it, mostly because it’s simply a collection of interviews with largely well-to-do elderly gay men. it’s very dated and very predictable, and it’s not really a “guide” at all.
Our most precious possession? Our health
But the one thing all the men in the book do agree on, that certainly rings very true for me, is that the most important thing to as we grow older is our health. My health is my key to living well and living independently for as long as possible.
I am in relatively good health, but I am prone to being high-strung. So for me, living well from here on out is going to be all about taking life as slow as possible.
The realization that I’m getting older is tempered by the fact that I also know that I am in complete control of my life. I also know what I want most out of it – peace and tranquility. You would think that all that gay people care about is sex from many of the messages we see in the news media, especially the gay news media.
I suspect most gay men who eventually “grow up” see our selfish, boastful, indulgent, over-the-top narcissistic culture for exactly what it is: Unsustainable for those who want to age well.
Older gay people face a double-edge sword. First, America’s elder care system still isn’t ready for the gay men and lesbians who have lived an “out” life. Documentaries such as “Before You Know it” and “Generation Silent” have illustrated that truth in powerful ways.
I don’t even want to fathom the horrors transgender people may face.
Second, our own culture hasn’t “grown up” enough to realize there no longer is any reason for the catty ideals we hold dear: An obsession with youth, with body beautiful, with indulgence in drink, material objects, extravagance and for spending more money than we make. We don’t have to prove we’re “fabulous” to anyone. Yet so much of the media, the gay media even more so than the mainstream, still depicts us as all those things I just described.
Mary, it’s tired. That’s too exhausting a charade to play for years on end and to expect to live a long, healthy life.
Cheers to growing old, taking it easy, living healthy, and just enjoying the tranquility of inner peace if you’re lucky enough to find it. That’s my definition of “fabulous” these days.
Coming Sunday: Why caregiving issues need to be part of every presidential candidate’s platform, and how Caregiver Relief is planning to make that happen.