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Growing Old Together: Romantic or Scary?

Our dear friends, Shelly* and Rob*, started dating 20 years ago. Shelly had zero interest in marriage, so 15 years ago they agreed to become “permanently engaged.” When they called recently and said they had decided to get married, my husband and I were delighted and very surprised.

We all agreed to celebrate by meeting at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. Our plan was to see two plays, go out for a nice dinner, and spend some leisurely time catching up and enjoying one another’s company.

Revelations, Romance, and the Reality of Getting Older

All four of us love to hike. Shelly and I walk (and talk) a lot faster than the guys do, so once we arrived at the trailhead of our favorite hiking spot, she and I took off. I was excited to have a little one-on-one time with my friend, as I was very curious to learn why she had reversed her decision about getting marriage after all these years.

When I asked what had changed, she said that last summer when she’d had hip replacement surgery, Rob had stayed with her in her home and lovingly cared for her. She said, “It wasn’t that he just did what I asked him to do, he actually anticipated what I might want or need and he did everything he could think of to make my recovery easier.”  She went on to say, “We’re trying to take good care of ourselves by exercising and eating right, but we’re getting older. We are both inching our way toward decrepitude! I just decided that it would be better for us to be married, live in the same house, and be there to help one another through this final stage of our lives.”

The next day, we all decided it would be fun to go to a small bakery that offered live jazz starting at 10:00 a.m. Drinking coffee with friends while listening to great music, snacking on scones, and reading playbills is not how Alex and I spend most of our weekday mornings! I knew this was going to be a real treat the minute Shelly mentioned it.

An Unexpected Window Into An Aging Couple’s Life

We settled into a corner table at the back of the bakery, and while I was marveling at how much fun it was to be in that place with our good friends, I saw an older man totter into the bakery. He appeared to be living with Parkinson’s disease. His left hand was shaking wildly. His face registered no emotion. He wore a faded, loose-fitting T-shirt, and the waistband of his gray sweats had lost all its elasticity. It looked as if his pants might slip completely off his hips and drop to the floor. His house slippers made a slight swooshing sound as he shuffled into the room.

His wife, a calm-looking petite woman, followed him into the bakery. She pulled out a chair, scooted it up to the back of his knees, and then tenderly placed her hands on his hips and guided him down onto the seat.

As I watched this excruciatingly slow process, I thought about how much work it must have taken for her to get him up, get him washed, dressed, and fed before loading him into the car to drive to the bakery. I couldn’t help but wonder if the time, effort, and energy was worth it.

They sat quietly listening to the music until the bass player asked, “Would anyone like to sing with us this morning?”

I was stunned when the man with the shaking hand and sagging pants stood up and started his slow shuffle toward the front of the room. When he got close to the ensemble, the bass player said, “Someone get John* a chair.”

With a little help from a younger musician, John got seated at the front of the band. Someone handed him a microphone and asked, “What would you like to sing.”

John said, “’On the Sunny Side of the Street’ in B or B flat.”

His voice was weak, but skilled and beautifully on key. It seemed obvious that he had once been a professional musician. With tears in my eyes, I wondered if he’d been a member of that ensemble. Had he taught music at a high school or the local university? Had he been a performer with the Shakespeare Festival? I’ll never know what kind of a life he had lived in the past, but I’m absolutely certain it was a lot more fun than the life he is currently living.

The next song John sang was, “As Time Goes By,” from the movie, Casablanca.

When he finished, everyone clapped and cheered. I held my breath as I watched him tugging at the waistband of his sweats as he shuffled back to his seat. When he reached the table, his wife stood and once again lined up his hips with the seat of the chair. He plopped down and sighed heavily. She took her place next to him, and then they both turned their attention back to the band.

A Hopeful Realization

Witnessing that moment made me realize that none of us knows what lies ahead. When we’re young, the idea of growing old together sounds romantic. As we age, it can get a little scary when we realize that there’s a pretty good chance that we will need to care for a loved one who is struggling with the impact of a progressive and degenerative disease. It’s equally possible that someday, someone will need to take care of us.

I’m glad our friends Shelly and Rob felt like their love was strong enough to make a commitment to love and care for one another regardless of what lies ahead. All four of us know we have more years behind us than ahead of us. As we go forward, I hope we will be able to draw strength on the love and memories we created in our happier and healthier days.

I also hope we will all remember the man who sang in the bakery. His performance proved to me that, in spite of living with a debilitating disease, it is still possible to experience pleasure. And perhaps even more importantly, he reminded me that if we can slow down a bit and allow people like John enough time and space to participate in a group, that they may very well still be capable of sharing their gifts and bringing joy to others.

*   Names have been changed to protect privacy

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Elaine K Sanchez is the author of the unflinchingly honest and surprisingly funny book, “Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver.” She is the co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, an online support program for family and professional caregivers, and she frequently delivers keynotes, workshops, and trainings at healthcare and caregiving conferences across the US. Contact her directly at elaine@eksanchez.com.

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