I find myself saddened and a little frightened by the struggles of older couples where the woman is considerably younger and the man begins to age badly. The age difference, for decades, no problem at all, emerges powerfully when he has a stroke, a heart attack, cancer—or a series of assaults on his health; and she finds herself cast more and more in the role of caretaker, having to put aside her own needs and desires and the optimistic life trajectory that she had imagined. As he struggles with physical and mental diminishment and she with the narrowing of life, it can be hard to hold fast to the love and friendship they had shared.
Franny and I, eight years apart, watch this drama with trepidation. We have friends who are in their late seventies and eighties. We are in our sixties and seventies. It’s hard not to imagine their struggles as our fate. Franny tells me that she has begun sharing a kind of anticipatory anxiety with friends. She’s way ahead of me. I’ve just begun to let in the possibilities. The crisis may be a ways off but the fears are now present.
What do we see in our older friends? In the worst case, there’s the physical labor of bathing her husband, helping him stand and walk, the same work that challenges the strength and stamina of young nurses. There’s the effort to organize helpers and dealing with finances which, having often rested with the men, seem intimidating. There’s shlepping almost every day to doctor’s appointments and hospitals—and the lengthy stays at the hospitals when things go badly. These are times of fear and boredom and growing resentment. “This is how I’ll spend my old age?,” the women intone, either out loud or in private to their female friends. “Would you do this for me?” one female friend said to her husband. “No, I don’t think so,” she answered for him. She is not unique; her pessimism is shared by many others.
The emotional exhaustion may even supersede the physical while the caretakers try to hold hope and generosity in the forefront. Even as the women work in their selfless ways, they fall prey to self criticism when generosity and even love fails, even for a moment. Finally, there’s the desire for all of this to be done, even when she knows the meaning of being done: the horror of wishing a loved one would hurry his dying. Which brings on more self-criticism and drowns out the possibility of grief.
For the men who are ill or failing, there’s the pain and disability, itself, but the psychological trauma is almost as upsetting. First among the trauma is probably the dependence and the indignities that follow disability: how people talk down to you and around you; the inability to do simple tasks like buttoning the collar of your shirt; the incontinence. Even as the men ask for help, they hate it.
With time, passivity can set in. At first, yielding to their neediness can be a relief to the men. But it also feels damning, as though they are relinquishing their souls. Self loathing and panic may follow. In that mood, they may become moody, quarrelsome, hard to please. They withdraw, become isolated, possibly despairing. Death looms just over the horizon.
Observing this bleak scene scares the hell out of both younger women and men. There is a sense of foreboding. For women in their sixties or early seventies, looking at their future is like gazing through the reverse side of a telescope and seeing the diminishment of their lives. For the men in their mid to late seventies, averting their gaze is easier than facing a potentially harsh future. As many of my friends say, “Who’s old?”
Many of these anticipations seem to be hidden from one another or contained in discussions of finances, wills, and formalities that at least seem to have answers. But lately the ability of these discussions to deflect a clear-eyed view of the future has waned. I know that Franny has been thinking ruefully about the future. And she tells me that she’s had conversations with numbers of friend who also have older husbands. To my surprise, the air is abuzz with the talk; and I hate it.
Still, the women need to speak. They need this gathering of information and commiseration. They need the companionship now and the promise of later support. Men do, too, but we are slow to act. =
Though these conversations speak mainly to the future, and though they are good preparation, they can also be dangerous by coloring the way that men and women see one another. Here I want to be careful. People generally look for first causes: the problems begin with male decline; no, they begin with female reactivity. Rather, I want to portray an interactive process in which it doesn’t matter where you begin. In that spirit, here’s what may constitute an early stage in a typical, downward spiral.
- Let’s say that he has become more forgetful and doesn’t take care of practical matters like paying bills or turning off the oven as crisply or reliably as he once did.
- This makes her nervous, raising questions of safety and security. She says so.
- His pride is hurt. He own fears have been articulated. He gets defensive.
- She feels unheard, grows more nervous and criticizes.
- He explodes or distances himself or both.
Even when men are still mostly healthy, women have grown alert to decline—or, possibly, hyper-alert to decline. In their desire to be equal parts helpful and self-protective, the women may overreact. They may see decline where it isn’t. They may treat their men as if the decline is already upon them. Feeling respect slipping away, men try to make the women’s concerns illegitimate, neurotic. He grows reactive. This is a fight that divides the couple and they have to call on all their resources to bridge the gaps.
Now here’s how the difficulties may play out in their later stages:
- The more he declines, the more she worries
- The more the she worries and articulates her concerns, the more he worries that his wife is right—and begins to hide. When emotional distance has been the norm, this may exacerbates an old struggle about their lack of intimacy.
- When he hides and grow fearful, himself, she believes she is being asked to maintain a lie, as though things are as they had been. In this awkward, irritating, imprisoning, and fearful position, she, nonetheless, still also feels guilty. “Why can’t I be more loving and accepting,” they ask. When they can’t, do so all or even most of the time…
- He feels demeaned, as though his status in the marriage—and in life, generally—has plunged. That saps his confidence, which, in turn, depletes his actual competence. In that state his ability to support and love his wife shrinks.
- Her fears are confirmed. She grows alternately compassionate and resentful, often as inconsistent as her man.
- His fears are also confirmed…
- And so it goes.
And so the downward spiral goes, taking on a life of its own and becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.
I’d like to think that many of us can step outside of this ghoulish prophesy. I’d like to believe that awareness of its destructive potential will steer us in more collaborative and loving directions. Why can’t we—men and women together–keep in mind all of the times and all the years when we have solved problems together, when we have moved through dark and dispiriting events and back into each other’s arms? Throughout long marriages, we have lost and restored our friendships more than once. Why can’t we discipline ourselves to keep respect and love in the forefront?
Maybe we can. I believe we can. That’s my purpose: to bring the threat to light, hoping it provides fuel to our ability to overcome it. You’ll have to tell me if it has helped you.