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At the mercy of others

May 17, 2012

Sixty is the new 50, they say. We boomers are growing old gracefully. Those of us lucky enough to have escaped the plagues of AIDS, drugs and rock ‘n roll are rocking our post-middle-age. Having spent the three months leading up to my 60th birthday visiting my aunt in a rehabilitation center, I am ready to consider a gym membership, make that colonoscopy appointment and meet with a financial advisor toute de suite. The reality of what can happen to a body in a split second has hit me like a blocked artery.

My husband has a different approach. Although he looks young for his age—a full head of hair and a younger wife aid this deception—he is conscious of the actuarial table. He plays the odds. A dental problem is put off until after the colonoscopy, “in case I’m riddled with cancer,” he says casually. Fortunately he is not, so dental surgery is next.

A friend who predates me by two decades says he doesn’t buy extended warranties anymore. He laughs at the clerks trying to make their quotas, saying, “Do I look like I need an extended warranty?” I admire his attitude as well as his humor.

A woman who became my aunt’s dining companion at rehab is my model for growing old if you have the bad luck to be infirm and alone at 90. Rose was the office manager in a Manhattan law firm for most of her working life. She has a quick mind and a sharp tongue, making remarkably accurate snap judgments about the people who walk in and out of her life on the fifth floor of Village Care Rehabilitation. Not always an admirable trait, making snap judgments can come in handy when you are at the mercy of strangers and confined to a wheelchair.

In a dinner conversation near the end of my aunt’s stay, I asked Rose what her plans were. She said plainly, “I can’t go home. I can’t take care of myself anymore.” It was such a simple acknowledgement of reality without any self-deception. Because she still has savings from her long career, she pays $700 per day for the privilege of a shared room and three meals a day, which she often disdains. The dinner menu includes delicacies like Sloppy Joes and Pepperoni Pizza. (I think if I had assets like those, I’d opt for a few months at The Pierre Hotel with room service and a private aide before finding a nursing home.) The social worker avoids discussing her options with her, I suspect because she is a ‘private pay’ client. When her funds are depleted, she will be a Medicaid recipient and at the mercy of another system.