Gary Tetz

The “chair chi” class was just starting, and on a whim I decided to slide into an empty spot between two affable post-acute rehab residents. After a little chitchat, the lady next to me peered over her glasses and asked hopefully, “Are you going to be living here now?”

Naturally, I laughed heartily — on the outside — and said, “No, not yet.” But inside, my spirit was crushed by the outrageous suggestion that I appeared to be a candidate for long-term care. I went straight back to my office and started Googling expensive hairpieces and rejuvenating face cream. Next time I see her, I’ll be ready.

Actually, as I wander vibrant senior living campuses today and see all those great activities, elaborate menus and newfangled amenities, there’s a lot to like. Once I get past the chilling realization that time actually does march on and my care-requiring destiny awaits, there’s much that’s appealing. I could live there now, and probably would if they’d let me.

That’s a difference between my father’s generation and mine — the way we value, or in my case, don’t value, our independence. He wants to (and just did) drive a 30-foot motorhome, towing a car, from British Columbia to Oregon to California to Arizona to North Carolina and back to Canada again. I want to … not do anything like that. Ever.

It’s such a foreign mindset to me. He’s part of a pre-boomer cohort that craves the open road, the empty spaces, the opportunity to do things their way, on their own, for as long as possible and beyond. A friend of mine asked her aging father why he hadn’t put his blinker on to change lanes. He replied, “Because it’s none of their business.”

To people like me, that quest for eternal independence can seem baffling, but it fits entirely within their other common character traits like courage, fearlessness and stoicism. I’ve never seen my dad take a painkiller, for instance, even though his hips and knees have hurt constantly as long as I can remember.  Me, I sprinkle Advil on my breakfast cereal just in case I might happen to think about pain later in the day. We’re just different, that’s all.

I was with a group of seniors his age at a local restaurant recently, and the conversation turned a little melancholy pretty fast. They talked with gallows humor about who wasn’t there anymore, the shrinking pool of friends and family and their greatest fear of all: the likelihood and horror of someday moving into a care environment.

Within that unscientific sample, there’s nothing they dread more. “Don’t put me in a place like that,” said one lady. “Everything in one room? No cars, no tools?” responded a gentleman, shaking his head in disbelief. “That will be the end of the road for me,” added a third, darkly. Despite everything that’s changed for the better in long-term care over their lifetime, the thought of ever going there seems to them more like punishment than reprieve.

Skip ahead about 30 years, and that’s just not the way I think. I walk onto a new senior living campus, and just can’t become a resident soon enough. No more yard work, no more cooking, no more having to drive myself again? Talk about paradise. Take my car keys and sign me up immediately.

But conversely, when I talk to a senior couple I know about the many safer options to living in their current home, they look at me like I’m the sheriff telling them to evacuate during a 100-year flood. As a member of generation so different in what we value and desire, it’s still an endless struggle for me to understand the allure of an independence that seems to sometimes go directly against their self-interest or even preservation.

The hardest part, and also the key, is probably just accepting that everyone has his or her own journey, and that there’s really no right or wrong way to navigate it. As we deal very directly and personally with the aging of the generation before us, we may think we know best, but maybe we don’t.

After all, we’re all on the same train, going to the same place — the only difference is we’re leaving at different times. And along the way, I think we’ll generally be happiest and most useful when we can set our own beliefs, biases and wishes aside — just being there for those we love as needs arise, simply helping them live their journeys with integrity and all possible joy.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.