The Far Shore of Aging
Jane Gross is the creator of "The New Old Age" blog at The New York Times and author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves.
May 7, 2015
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: It’s a remarkable feature of our time: we are changing the nature of aging. Like all progress, this has an upside and a downside. As Jane Gross’s mother went through a long decline after her mid-80s, she put it this way, poignantly: “We live too long and die too slowly.” Partly as a result of accompanying her mother through these years, Jane Gross created “The New Old Age” blog at The New York Times. Her hard-won wisdom on experiencing the new old age of our parents — and ourselves — is eloquent, practically useful, and blunt.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
JANE GROSS: If there’s any advantage at all to them having this long, slow dying, there’s a lot of time to get things right that you didn’t get right earlier. I mean, it definitely changed the architecture of my family. It definitely changed what the nature of my memories of my mother are, and I imagine, will be forever. I mean, on the one hand, it makes me more scared, and on the other hand, it makes me less scared.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: Jane Gross is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves. She also appears in the new documentary “Caring for Mom and Dad,” which premieres this week on PBS. I spoke with her in 2011. Jane Gross’s memoir is full of what she’s learned as a journalist. But it centers on intensely personal lessons learned the hard way, as she and her brother navigated an unfamiliar landscape of life. In her introduction, she writes of the “far shore of caregiving, an all-consuming and life-altering experience that wrings you out, uses you up, and then sends you back into the world with your heart full and your eyes open, if you let it.”
MS. TIPPETT: I wondered did you — what did you imagine old age would be when you were growing up? Your own, that of your parents, that of yourself? It made me wonder, did we think about this when we were growing up?
MS. GROSS: Yeah. I think that I didn’t think about it. By the time I was born, only two of my four grandparents were alive. One died suddenly and was a vibrant man and then, kerplunk, in the street the next day. My father was younger than I am now when he died. He was only 61. So there was no multigenerational aging going on. And we also lived in a kind of white-bread, not quite Levittown, but that sort of suburb where everybody was more or less the same age and raising their children. I mean, I don’t even really remember seeing old people when I was growing up.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. You know, I think that that’s kind of an amazing backdrop to the story that you have to tell into this piece of our common life that you’ve done your journalism about these last years, that the very nature of aging and of dying have kind of changed in real time in our lifetimes and even, I think, in terms of imagination even in the last decade.
So, you know, there is a story that you tell in that book about I believe you were present when a geriatrician, Joanne Lynn, was asking an audience of people who were all health experts of one kind or another how many of you expect to die. And everyone did not shoot their hand up. [laughs] Then she asked them, would you prefer to be old when it happens? In fact, those two questions and the reactions that we have to them are kind of out of synch with the knowledge that you have about this and that she had about this.
MS. GROSS: Yeah. I mean, she does that presentation frequently and, apparently, always gets the same reaction. What was so striking to me is that she gave them kind of the easy choices first and then left the really hard one until the end, and then they had sort of run out of things to raise their hand about. But there’s this horribly long in-between time that didn’t use to exist.
MS. TIPPETT: Between just living, aging, and dying.
MS. GROSS: Between fine and dead. I mean, that’s the thing that I think is sort of new and the result of medical technology, and everybody wants to believe that their parent and, even on some level, more importantly, themselves are going to be, you know, perfectly healthy, climbing the Himalayas one day and dead the next.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Playing tennis at 80 or 90 years old.
MS. GROSS: Correct, correct. It’s the in-between time that now, for so many people, lasts so long and that — I’m not even sure if we had grown up surrounded by old people if we would have witnessed that in-between time back then.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. And your mother — it sounds like she was — was she 88? Estelle was her name, right? Was she 88 — she really also was one of these people who was pretty fine, right?
MS. GROSS: Yeah. I mean, she was fine and then, all of a sudden, in a hundred small ways, none of which were going to kill her, not fine. Yeah, she went from being fine to being really dependent on other people, strangers, and her children without a lot of warning in between.
MS. TIPPETT: And when you say that, you’re also talking about the — in your case, as is often the case, the children who then become the caregivers, right? That it becomes this collaborative, this joint, effort. I’d like to draw that out. I mean, there’s the experience your mother had, but what you have really written about in great detail and also drawn out other peoples’ stories on is the other side of that experience.
MS. GROSS: Yeah. And for a long time, the locution that I would use is that — the feeling of becoming your mother’s mother. The more time I had to think about that, the more persuaded I became that you never quite become your mother’s mother. You increasingly get closer to that place, but as long as they’re cognitively intact, part of the trick, I think, is taking over enough but not humiliating them, essentially.
MS. TIPPETT: Another way you wrote about this is as a question: how do we become our parents’ parents without robbing them of their dignity? How do they let us? So how do you know to recognize that line between robbing them of their dignity or assuming a new role, which may be unfamiliar and yet appropriate at that stage for both of you?
MS. GROSS: Well, I mean, it’s certainly easier to see where my brother and I did it right and where my brother and I did it wrong in retrospect than it is to see it when it’s going on. My mother was very much in charge until the very end. Once the feeling that we were lurching from crisis to crisis was under control, she was quite — this is a terrible word — but she was actually more childlike earlier in the process than towards the end of the process because she was so frightened. Once she got her mind around what her situation was, she was really clear at that point.
She also was very clear once she was in a nursing home environment, which is partly why I have this really counterintuitive feeling about nursing homes. I mean, we do a lot of things during the process to keep them from winding up there because, somehow or other, we believe that there’s no worse thing that you can possibly do. On the other hand, in a good nursing home, there’s an awful lot of psychological support, an awful lot of social support, an awful lot of religious support.
[music: “Crooked Courant” by David Starobin]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Jane Gross created “The New Old Age” blog at The New York Times. Her book, A Bittersweet Season, is a memoir of the experiences that led to that project.
[music: “Crooked Courant” by David Starobin]
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, when you and I first began talking a few minutes ago, you talked about how this subject that you’ve taken on of end-of-life care and the new old age that often people are not sure they want to hear about this or read about it because it sounds depressing. Talking about nursing homes is depressing and about death is depressing. I also sense that part of the point you want to make, having lived through this, is it’s also just a truth about life.
MS. GROSS: I would not have expected this at the outset. My mother and I had a difficult — very difficult relationship. I didn’t race to the loving caregiver’s role with an open heart, shall we say. I sort of weighed in my mind what seemed to me like the lesser of two evils. Was I going to do this because it was the right thing to do, or was I going to bail and feel guilty for the rest of my life? On balance, with that as the rock and a hard place, I decided, do it and do it right. I didn’t have a whole lot of expectation, if any expectation at all, that it was going to be redemptive, if you will. But it was. I mean, it was after we’d sort of muddled our way through the crises and the mistakes, it’s really a time when a certain kind of family repair is possible, unless you’re fortunate enough to come from the kind of family where there’s no repair work to be done. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: I haven’t met any of those people. [laughs]
MS. GROSS: Well, neither have I, actually. I mean, also a story I tell in the book — but my mother told me I looked pretty for the first time in my life when she could barely speak anymore. She told me she loved me for the first time in my life on an alphabet board. Some pretty interesting surprising things can happen at that stage. And my brother and I, I mean, my brother didn’t have the issues, if you will, with my mother that I did, but we weren’t close until we were forced into this collaboration. And so that’s the other redemptive piece is to be sort of left with a different kind of relationship with a sibling than I had before.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you think that this is a common experience of undergoing this kind of repair? You started “The New Old Age” blog, in part, to open up this discussion with other people. I mean, I don’t know if redemptive is a word everyone would use, but do you hear versions of that, echoes of that, in other stories?
MS. GROSS: Um, well, because, as the result of the blog and as a result of a number of years of writing about this for the paper, the dead-tree New York Times, and because we were late children and therefore were going through this ahead of our friends and colleagues, most of what people talk to me about is “how do you do this, how do you do that” kind of stuff. I hear more stories about the relational piece of it, interestingly, from the old people.
MS. TIPPETT: Than their caregiver children.
MS. GROSS: Yeah. I mean, I think at the point that they’re going through it, the children are so caught up — and I’m not suggesting that we weren’t also — in what does Medicare cover, how does assisted living work, do I hire a home health aide from an agency or over the back fence? I mean, the practical parts of it are so overwhelming when you’re trying to figure them all out all at once that you don’t really have time to think very much about the reparative part of it.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I think your story, the guts of it, right, those hard places in particular, is probably helpful for people just in naming — I mean, what you describe is so many people in our culture right now in this situation who get caught between guilt and exhaustion, if not utter helplessness and a sense of failure, because, as you say, these tasks are completely unexpected. People are unequipped for them.
MS. GROSS: Yeah, also, at the same time, and this I do hear from the people in my age group, it kicks up all the dust of childhood. I mean, everybody sort of becomes who they were when they were 10.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s a terrible thought. [laughs]
MS. GROSS: I know, I know, I know. I’m not even sure it’s avoidable except I wish that I had thought about it in those terms when it was going on. I mean, the number of arguments that my brother and I had, for instance, and we had what I would describe as an excellent collaboration in terms of the actual division of labor. But all the fights ultimately boiled down to some version of Mommy loved you more than she loved me.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, is that something you would say to people, to try to be more aware of that? It sounds like a hard order too.
MS. GROSS: Yes, yes. Well, I mean, I’m not sure what you do once you’re aware of it, but as a person who deals in language, I think simply naming it is probably helpful.
[music: “It Wasn’t You” by The Pines]
MS. TIPPETT: To me, in your writing, there’s another interesting word that recurs if I kind of read between the lines about unexpected learning, and it’s about time and timing. You say one of the great challenges to figure out — again, we talked about this a minute ago — when’s the time to take charge, the importance of slowing things down and demanding time to make decisions when, in the middle of some of these crises, you feel pressed to make snap judgments about things you don’t understand. You also use this phrase describing this entire experience of this period of “living in the eternal present tense.”
MS. GROSS: Well, I mean, you have no idea how long it’s going to last. You have no idea what’s going to happen next. And I think, for so many of us — and this obviously is an upper-middle-class thing to say in a certain way — but we’re mostly people who have been enormously successful in our professional lives and are used to feeling in control of what we’re doing. You make a to-do list, and you check everything off the to-do list, and then when you get to the bottom of the page, whatever the task is, you’re done. This doesn’t work that way. I mean, I started doing yoga in the middle of this, OK? [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] I get that. I think I heard another interview or talk where you said you’re a journalist, and your brother is a journalist as well?
MS. GROSS: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: That you were people who know how to pick up the phone and ask a question and get the answer.
MS. GROSS: I mean, we just thought that the faster we moved, essentially, and the faster we ticked all these things off the list, the faster we could get back to what our lives had been like before. What it took us a long time to realize is that we were never going to go back to our lives as they were before, in the practical sense, until she died.
MS. TIPPETT: Then life would not be like it was …
MS. GROSS: It wasn’t like we could solve these problem, fix her, put the wheels back on the broken bicycle, and then go back about our business. And the not knowing how long it’s going to last and what’s going to happen next — I think the more of a control freak you are to start out with, the more disorienting that is.
MS. TIPPETT: There was this interesting juxtaposition in terms of time, for me, in your story about this happening with your mother and then being a journalist on September 11, 2001, and being one of the people who covered that for The New York Times. What you just said, that being clueless and vulnerable is a central and unavoidable part of this experience of going through this long death of a parent. And I’ve thought about how September 11 for Americans as a culture was a moment of unexpected vulnerability. You actually were — I mean, one of these impossible situations was happening to you on that day and in those days following where you had work to do which was arguably very important, and your mother was taking another turn for the worst.
MS. GROSS: Yeah. It’s an almost shameful thing to say, but I was grateful for the work. And I was grateful that the work was of the size and magnitude where I could really throw myself into it and get my head out of this other thing.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And your mother’s reaction to September 11?
MS. GROSS: Well, my mother was in a confused and strange circumstance because she had just had surgery, and we already knew that where she was going post-surgery was the nursing home. We had been assured that they would keep her in the hospital until there was a bed. So the anomaly here is that the City of New York is still waiting for this great deluge of injured people that never comes, but in the meantime, they are emptying hospitals of patients who were cleared for discharge. So I have a mother who’s kind of next in line for the nursing home and a hospital that’s calling me and saying, “Come get your mother.”
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.
[music: “This Is Not America” by Ahn Trio]
MS. TIPPETT: Here’s a passage from Jane Gross’s memoir, A Bittersweet Season:
[reading] “I sprinted when I should have cautiously watched my step, rushed when I should have ruminated, barked orders when I should have discussed things with my mother. I heard what I wanted to hear, not what doctors or admissions directors of long-term care facilities were actually telling me. Does any of this sound familiar to you? If it does, slow down. Get your bearings. You can’t bulldoze your way through this like a work project. Still, you can take comfort in knowing that this precipitating crisis, for many of us, is the hardest part, because you probably still think you can make it right, that you can stop the clock.
“It takes a while to learn that some decisions are far more important than others; some things are actually in your hands and some not. What is vital, and well within your control, is being present in a consoling way and respectful enough to bear witness to the inevitable. This, too, is about slowing down. At first, it’s hard to walk at a snail’s pace beside your mother or father when they can no longer keep up, at least without impatiently rolling your eyes or to kneel at their level when they’re in a wheelchair. But the pace and the vantage become more natural and annoyance softens into tenderness if you let it.”
[music: “This Is Not America” by Ahn Trio]
MS. TIPPETT: Find this passage from Jane Gross’s writing at onbeing.org. We’ve also posted some prescient and powerful lines there from the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his essay “To Grow in Wisdom,” which he delivered at the 1961 White House Conference on Aging, he said, “What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten.”
You can also listen to a like-minded show we did about Alzheimer’s disease. We explored support groups and writing groups as ways to take control of the loss of memory. Hear that program and read more at onbeing.org.
[music: “Conversation Over” by Steve Jansen]
MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, what happens when there are no children to care for us? Can we create new forms of community, and expand the meaning of “families of choice,” as the new old age redefines the final span of life? I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Conversation Over” by Steve Jansen]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, we’re exploring Jane Gross’s experiences as a daughter and a New York Times correspondent. Hers is a story of our time — the new landscape of living longer and dying more slowly and the caregiving this involves. She’s written a memoir, A Bittersweet Season, about lessons learned the hard way as she went through this life passage with her own mother.
MS. TIPPETT: So do you think that — is it your sense — and I mean this as a journalist and somebody’s writing about this as well as someone who’s gone through it — that we are collecting some smarts, some tools, about how to live this kind of life passage with our parents, with ourselves?
MS. GROSS: I wish that I could give you an unequivocal “yes” on that for a million reasons, one being that the denial and the not wanting to visit this before you have to is very strong. On the other hand, I think that — and this is in no way scientific, this is totally anecdotal — I think that the denial is stronger on the part of the adult children than it is on the part of the elderly. A lot of things that upset us while it’s going on don’t upset them. As I’ve toured with the book, I have repeatedly been approached by older people saying, “I want to talk about this with my children and they won’t let me.”
MS. TIPPETT: That also means — and this is kind of an American tendency — that then people will be very alone with it, right, when they are finally forced to reckon with it.
MS. GROSS: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think one of the responsibilities that the children ought to take beyond the practical ones is opening the door to that conversation as often as they possibly can. My mother used every family meeting at the nursing home to make clear what her end-of-life philosophy was. I mean, my mother behaved like somebody who was trying to create a record so that when she made decisions at the end, they weren’t decisions that came out of the blue.
But, as I say, my brother did his share of the work and then some and, in many ways, was much better at it than I was because he was better able to compartmentalize than I was. I mean, he did what needed to be done and then he lived his life. He didn’t sort of wander around with a black cloud hanging over him all the time. But he found those conversations virtually impossible to sit through. He would come to the meetings. He would fiddle around with his BlackBerry. He would leave early. I think one of the things that people can do within their families, perhaps, is figure out which of the children is the most comfortable having that conversation. I mean, everybody doesn’t have to have it as long as somebody has it.
MS. TIPPETT: So that’s also a piece of self-awareness or awareness of the family dynamics.
MS. GROSS: Yeah, and I think that, generally, the parents know which child that is. I’m also quite persuaded in the case of my family that it was easier for me to play that role and easier for my mother to involve me in that because she was so much more attached and vice versa to my brother.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that painful for you to say? Is that hard to say? Is that something you’ve made peace with?
MS. GROSS: No. I mean, I’ve made peace with it, and I had a parallel relationship with my father, who unfortunately died very young. Michael and I used to joke all the time that he got all these extra years with his parent. I lost mine when I was 25. On the other hand, I got this reconciliation time at the back end that my brother never got with my father.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
I mean, I think families tend to divide up in certain kinds of ways. I’m just grateful that she and I had the time to appreciate each other, I guess.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m curious about how going through this experience with your mother has changed the way you think about aging, your aging. I mean, not just dying, but aging, getting old.
MS. GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, maybe I’ll feel differently about this at a different age, but, I mean, I think that probably for most of us, I mean, even much younger people who have things like cancer, I think that most of us are much more afraid of the process than we are of the fact of it. Would you agree?
MS. TIPPETT: What do you mean? That we’re more afraid of what we know than what we are experiencing?
MS. GROSS: No. I mean, I’m not afraid of being dead so much as I am afraid of the dying.
MS. TIPPETT: …of the dying, yes.
MS. GROSS: And particularly having watched this kind of dying, not that I’m wishing for cancer, but I’m single, I’m childless, and the idea of how do you get through this if you’re by yourself makes the hair on my arms stand up.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You’ve done some interesting pieces about women teaming up in old age because women do live longer, right? There’s this article in 2004. It struck me — I mean, I’ve had that fantasy. I mean, I’m 50. I’ve got, theoretically, some years ahead of me. But I’ve thought about getting to some stage in my life where I could pull together some of my favorite people that we all might inhabit some island or community or neighborhood or something.
I mean, it strikes me, because the nuclear family is more — as we at least romanticized it at an earlier stage in American cultures, is not there anymore in any case. It strikes me that one of the things that this new old age, new dying, may force us to do is recreate community or create new kinds of community that will take us all the way through to the end of our lives.
MS. GROSS: Yes, and my favorite fantasy — and I think that this is probably true for most women, even the ones who live in families — is me and my girlfriends, right?
MS. TIPPETT: Right, yeah. And whatever children or grandchildren or significant others might or might not be around to join in.
MS. GROSS: I had an extended conversation with one friend of mine who has a husband, so we can’t start choosing our real estate while he’s still with us. [laughs] But we have very funny conversations about if we have long-term care insurance, which is something that has many pluses and many minuses, but both of us happen to have, can we use our policies to have somebody drive us and somebody cook and somebody do manicures, sort of the ultimate summer camp or college dormitory or spa for old women.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
[music: “Hometown Hooray” by White Hinterland]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today, with journalist and New York Times “New Old Age” blog creator, Jane Gross.
[music: “Hometown Hooray” by White Hinterland]
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve quoted a scholar who’s thought about this, that legally friendship — there’s a second-class status of friendship and that if we re-create new kinds of community at the end of life, there would also be practical things like that to take up.
MS. GROSS: I think that’s probably right. I have very strong feelings about the general devaluing of friendship. I mean, its lack of legal standing. I actually took care of a dying friend quite a long time before my mother was sick who had parents and a sister who — I guess the best way to put it would be to say went missing.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Everybody doesn’t rise to this occasion like you and your brother did.
MS. GROSS: I took care of him, and my mother was absolutely beside herself. I mean, she kept saying, “He’s not your family, he’s not your family.” And I kept saying to her, “You know, Mama, who do you imagine is going to do this for me?” How could she be so stuck in this notion that only family does this? I mean, in a perfect world, I suppose, we would all look at the model of gay men during the AIDS crisis because those were families of choice, not families of origin, and they took wonderful care of each other.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s such an interesting thing to name. Do you think about the nature of identity and what happens to it across the lifespan? This is something I’ve thought about before, but it really struck me as I was reading your story. I mean, your mother is this woman who’d been a nurse, she was a mother, she was a wife. You described her as intelligent, thrifty, resilient, resourceful. She thrived as a widow, actually. She was OK with solitude. She was independent.
Then later — so that’s who she was, right? That’s the mother — or those are some ways to describe the woman you knew. I mean, then there’s — you talk about the difficulty of language. Suddenly, you become elderly. Suddenly, you’re a senior citizen. There was one review of your book where someone described your mother as a feisty octogenarian, which I know they meant as a compliment. But it doesn’t describe that woman in her fullness.
MS. GROSS: Yeah, I’m actually not sure, and I’m going to have to wait until I’m there, I suppose, to know the answer to this, although, it really is a great gift besides my mother to have other very old people in my life, parents of friends, the people that I taught in the nursing home. I mean, they are incredible teachers and teachers in a different way when they’re not your mother. But I’m not persuaded that it isn’t worse for us in middle age imagining it than it is for them experiencing it because it happens to them incrementally.
I tell a story in the book about my mother announcing to me upon return from a vacation. I mean, the first words out of her mouth when I walked into the assisted living place she was living at the time — that she needed diapers. She sort of presented it to me terribly matter-of-factly, which was my mother’s way. I mean, I need diapers and I need Sweet’N Low and I need oatmeal, if I remember correctly.
I was just so unstrung by this that a neighbor sort of scooped me up in my very own grocery store and took me from aisle to aisle. I said to a friend of mine later, I didn’t understand why that particular marker was so upsetting — so much more upsetting to me than it was to her. My friend’s observation was that there were many reasons why it was a relief to her by then. Because getting from the wheelchair to the bathroom was causing falls and all kinds of problems, and so I’m not sure that it’s as bad when it actually happens as it is to watch it happen. I sure hope not.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Well, no, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, again, to the experience of aging, right, I mean, there’s the dying slowly, but there’s the living long, and really experiencing yourself to be aging starts much earlier than your 80s, right? So, I mean, even at 50, it strikes me that there’s something about aging. You start to realize there’s a kind of incremental loss. There are also things being gained, right? I guess — and I’m just wondering if there’s any way you do that incremental change differently, having lived through that, what’d you say, that far shore of caregiving with your mother, or do we just have to go through it? [laughs]
MS. GROSS: Well, I mean, I think it’s both. I think you just have to go through it. And I think that if rather than sort of squeeze your eyes shut, you decide that there’s something interesting about it, if only in the kind of spiritual life cycle sense of the word. I mean, you don’t get a choice, right?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right. Yeah. It struck me that you mentioned AIDS a minute ago and those communities of gay men who cared for each other when AIDS was a death sentence. You were one of the early reporters on AIDS, I think, right? And you’ve also done I notice a lot of writing about autism across the years?
MS. GROSS: Yes. Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Which…
MS. GROSS: The autism was inspired by very dear friends with autistic children, and I wanted to understand what was going on with their children and possibly be able to have a relationship with those children.
MS. TIPPETT: And that is an experience that’s reached a certain critical mass in the culture. What I’m getting at here is — here’s another way maybe our culture has to adapt to this reality of — it forces us to think about imperfection and frailty as a part of the life cycle and, of course, it always has been, but our culture’s been quite good at hiding those things or pretending like it won’t happen to me, where possible.
MS. GROSS: Yes. Yes. I mean, I think that, I don’t know if you’re quite at this age yet, but there also is the point where half, if not more than that, of your friends have cancer. And, I mean, that’s sort of strange and difficult.
MS. TIPPETT: But it’s part of the way we live now, the way we are able to live now. It’s part of living longer.
MS. GROSS: Well, and I think one of the things that is a great gift of being a journalist is you get to kind of poke around at these things before they’re your things, if you want to, if that makes sense.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. Yes.
MS. GROSS: For me, the most fascinating thing, in a way, about the autism stuff was the fortitude of those mothers, the sense that you just get dealt this card, and if somebody had said to you at some point earlier on, do you think you could do X, Y, Z, your answer would probably be “no.” But mostly, we do what we have to do.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You end up living a “yes.”
MS. GROSS: I’m sorry?
MS. TIPPETT: You end up living a “yes.”
MS. GROSS: Yes. What a nice way to put it, what a nice way to put it.
MS. TIPPETT: You said earlier that life wouldn’t go back to being the same until your mother had died, until all of this was over. But in fact, you didn’t go back to being the same when she was gone.
MS. GROSS: No, I didn’t. I mean, I have mixed feelings about that actually. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: About?
MS. GROSS: Well, I mean, certainly there are people who would say that still thinking about this and talking about it and all of that this many years later must prove that I’m having some unnatural grief experience. I don’t think that that’s the case. I mean, I think I fell into a subject that interested me journalistically that was gonna affect so many people that it was worth thinking about for such a long time. But it also, it’s — you find out what you’re made of if you weren’t already sure you knew the answer to that.
And if there’s any advantage at all to them having this long, slow dying, there’s a lot of time to get things right that you didn’t get right earlier. I mean, it definitely changed the architecture of my family. It definitely changed what the nature of my memories of my mother are and, I imagine, will be forever. I mean, on the one hand, it makes me more scared, and, on the other hand, it makes me less scared.
[music: “Broken Tree” by White Birch]
MS. TIPPETT: Jane Gross was a correspondent for The New York Times for 29 years, and she founded its “New Old Age” blog. Her book is A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves. She appears in the new documentary, “Caring for Mom and Dad,” which premieres this week on PBS.
And here, in closing, another excerpt from her memoir:
[reading] “I keep saying that this experience can become something other than desperate and bleak, if you let it. It really is a choice. We all know grown children who have bolted when the moment arrived. But imagining running away doesn’t make you a bad person. I fantasized, usually in the hypnagogic space between sleeping and waking, facing another day of ignorance and exhaustion, about pointing the car west and driving, driving, driving. I’m glad that I didn’t, because instead I learned what I was made of; I found my better self. I found my mother. I found my brother. But all of that came later.”
[music: “Broken Tree” by White Birch]
MS. TIPPETT: At onbeing.org, you can listen to this show again and share it. We’ve also posted Jane Gross’s list of top legal, medical, and professional resources for caregivers. Some of our listeners have shared their own experiences there about aging and the end of life and how Jane Gross’s ideas have influenced their decisions. Add your own thoughts and connect with others at onbeing.org.
[music: “Swisha” by Ratatat]
MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Nicki Oster, Michelle Keeley, and Selena Carlson.
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