Baby boomers are prone to believe that if they eat right, exercise daily, keep intellectually active, they will never be frail old people, dependent on others. Until four years before she died in 2004, my mom was extremely independent. She lived alone, she drove, she traveled all over the world, she walked, she did yoga, she lobbied for Alzheimer’s Disease. She was the helper, never the helped. Asking for or accepting help was almost impossible for her.
Everyone admired and reinforced her independence; ironically it made her aging more difficult for everyone concerned. My mom developed Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a Parkinson-plus neurological disorder; it destroyed her balance and she started to fall. She refused to make accommodations to her growing disability. In 2000 she fractured her pelvis, her sternum, her arm, and her ribs. She broke her arm in physical therapy; bored with the exercise bike, she decided to try the trampoline, balanced on one foot, and didn’t hold on. In 2001, visiting my brother, she fell from the top of his stairs and suffered serious brain damage. She was never herself again. For the last three years of her life, she was totally dependent on her family and home health aides for all activities of daily living; she could never be left alone. If she had been able to accept her need for help, she might have avoided some of the falls that so compromised her quality of life.
So many parents of my friends begin to need significant help as they near 80. Yet so many people in their 70’s living alone don’t seem to worry about their futures. Independence is a desirable goal of human development, but most of us have long periods of dependency at the beginning and end of life. Realistically accepting and planning for the probable dependence of aging may be one of the baby boomers’ hardest challenges.