Planning for your final years is a fascinating experience when there’s no imminent threat of death. I find myself thinking more and more about it.
People in their 80s might laugh at me, feeling that at age 66 I’m still very young. And maybe I do have 20 years ahead of me to prepare for death. But I nevertheless spend an increasing amount of time imagining what it will feel like to say “good-bye” to Ray, or to have him do the same to me. I brought it up with him a couple of days ago, and he replied, “Stop it. You’re going to make me cry.”
Maybe it’s because I plan ahead with everything else in my life that I’m now thinking about the horror of having another person wipe my bottom. I wonder if I’m thinking about aging because I see an old man when I look in the mirror. It isn’t me, of course. I’m in my early 40s, despite what my passport says. But, when did my body start changing so dramatically?
Liposuction would take care of the love handles and the belly that seem unimpressed with my exercise and diet. I could get Botox injections and have a facelift. I could dye my grey hair a darker color. But where does this war with wrinkles stop, and at what point do I hear the voice that is telling me that I’m fighting a losing battle? I feel sad when I watch other people use plastic surgery to look artificially young. Maybe that’s why they call it “plastic.”
Being gay impacts how I think about aging. Gay men, like straight women, are aware we’re evaluated and rewarded by others based upon our youth and beauty. Handsome, young, gay men and pretty, straight women are called to the head of the line. Seeing our bodies age beyond our control confronts us with our loss of privilege, unless we’re rich. Experiencing privilege makes losing it more troubling. We fear we are becoming invisible.
Not having children also impacts how I experience aging. Currently, Ray and I are having a wonderful time pampering our grand nieces and nephews. As such, we feel like grandparents. But we’re not. We live with the awareness that when we age we can’t assume that anyone will feel motivated or obligated to ensure that we decline with dignity. That’s one reason why the thought of saying “good-bye” to your spouse is so scary. Neither Ray nor I have felt lonely in 38 years.
Older gay and lesbian people who are wealthy might feel that they can buy safety, comfort, and dignity in their waning years. Ray and I have tried to make sure we can afford to live securely in our old age. But money doesn’t guarantee you won’t feel “tolerated” by a nurse or home health care worker. You lose power when you depend on others to drive, cook, give you your pills and injections, and bathe you.
Gay men who are HIV-positive may have greater fears than I do about how I might be treated in an assisted-living facility. Will their health care be so complicated that no one will want to keep track, or worse, make judgments about the man’s worth because of how he got infected? He probably feels safer now in the company of other HIV-positive people.
Do you know what makes this rumination about aging even worse? Ray and I don’t want to be around old, gay men, most likely because we don’t want them to think we’re like them. We go to matinees, take naps, and eat early, but we’re different from the old, gay men we see. We take lots of pills, I need eye drops, and I use a gadget to hear the television dialogue, but Ray and I prefer the company of young people because we think of ourselves as equally hip.
It seems as if I’m not the only gay person who is thinking about aging. Gay senior housing projects are springing up all over the country. Some of the housing is very posh, such as that in Santa Rosa, California, and some is designated as affordable, such as that in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The push for gay senior housing is due to the growing awareness that aging gay men and women, and transgender people too, want to spend their final years out of the closet, unafraid of the sentiments of other residents or of staff. We fear the horrible marginalization we experienced in our youth. We never want to have to endure such proselytizing, judgment, or loneliness again. Whatever it takes, we want to feel safe and valued.
Despite the often-quoted Bette Davis statement, growing old is for sissies. We’re not exempt. The unique challenges we face make growing old not something we want to do without forethought. Aging and preparing to die requires awareness, honesty, acceptance, planning, and gratitude. Unrealistic expectations of how good and easy it will be for us will only create suffering. Maybe it’s not silly to start thinking about it now.