Reflections on Reaching 80

Today is my 80th birthday. I used to think that was old. Many people still do. That’s what I thought when Kate’s father celebrated this milestone. That perception continued when our other parents reached the same age and a decade later when Kate’s mother and my dad made it to 90. I joked with Dad that we would celebrate his 100th, but I don’t think I took it seriously until his annual birthday parties in his mid-nineties. He lived with great anticipation as he reached his 3-digit birthday, and died two weeks later.

I don’t mean to suggest that he was like a spring chicken during that last decade, but he remained quite active until experiencing a stroke when he was 96. He had a variety of physical issues to deal with, but mentally he was quite youthful until his death. In many ways, I am like my dad. I realize that is no guarantee that I will live as long as he did, but it does make me think that I might have a shot at it.

I’ve thought a lot about Dad since he died 6 ½ years ago. Not surprisingly, much of that involves his care for my mom who had dementia. Early in the year he turned 80, he brought up the topic of moving from South Florida. He and Mom were not specific about their motivations for moving. They moved there from Tampa in 1936 and had always loved it. As I recall, he (or they) said something about the way life was changing, and they thought it would be nicer to be near their two sons.

It wasn’t until sometime after Kate was diagnosed that I began to wonder when Dad noticed the first signs of Mom’s dementia. Could that have been the primary motivation for moving? That could easily have been the case. It was four years later when the social worker at the office of Mom’s primary care physician informed us of her dementia. By that time, we were sure she had dementia though we hadn’t put a name to it. We were like many people who considered it to be a normal function of aging. Of course, Dad was also having health issues. Perhaps, that was their motivation for leaving Florida.

As it relates to my birthday today, I would say this is a time of life when a variety of things that remind you we don’t live forever. If my memory is correct, it was between 75 and 85 that each of our parents began to have health issues.

I am 80, but I am still in good health. I do have a little arthritis in my fingers, and I have periodic lower back pain. Neither of these has been serious enough for me to take any medication. I am mindful that could change at any time. It was that kind of thinking that led to my making a down payment on an apartment in a local continuing care retirement community a little over a year ago. At the time, a move seemed a long way off. Now, it is only 6-8 months before the building is completed.

The important issue for me is the same as it has been for the past nine years. That is taking care of Kate. She requires much more attention now. That won’t get any better. That means I need to remain healthy. I take comfort in the fact that my dad was in his mid-80s when Mom was diagnosed, 89 when she died. I was 70 when Kate was diagnosed. It’s been over 9 years, and I’m just 80. I’m going to be optimistic that I will be able to continue caring for her in the future, with a little help, of course.

A final thought with respect to my dad and to Kate. Dad led a more challenging life than I have, but he was always an optimist and seemed up to almost every curve ball thrown at him. On occasions like milestone birthdays, he always said, “I’ve had a wonderful life.” I share his thinking.

Kate was up early again this morning. When she was almost finished with her breakfast, I opened a couple of birthday cards and read them to her. She suddenly realized that she hadn’t known it was my birthday and wanted to know what she should do. I said, “You could just say, ‘Happy Birthday, Richard.’” She started to sing “Happy Birthday” but was unsure of the words, so I coached her a bit. When she got to the part where she needed to sing my name, she couldn’t remember it. I filled it in for her, and she repeated it and finished the song. I told her that was a present that made my day, and it did. Like my dad, I, too, have had a wonderful life.

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