About the Author: Attorney Douglas G. Chalgian is both certified in elder law by the National Elder Law Foundation and a Fellow with the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. He is also the only attorney in Michigan who has served as Chair of both the Probate and Estate Planning and Elder Law and Disability Rights Sections of the State Bar. Mr. Chalgian was appointed by the Governor to the Commission on Services to the Aging. He was one of about a dozen attorneys on the Michigan Trust Code Drafting Committee, and has been selected five times as one of the top 100 lawyers in Michigan by Super Lawyers Magazine. Mr. Chalgian writes and speaks regularly on the topics of estate planning, elder law, and probate court litigation.
Getting Old is Not for Sissies
Recently, a colleague told me about an experience she had with her father and father-in-law. Both were widowed. Both were of an advanced age. Both were beginning to experience trouble getting around. When presented with the proposition that they could benefit from using a wheelchair at times, one was all for it, the other was completely opposed. This story illustrates an important aspect of the aging process that doesn’t always get a lot of attention, but which can be the most important variable in anticipating how challenging the aging process will be.
1. Beyond age spots and wrinkles
Sure, some people age “gracefully,” maintaining their independence and a positive outlook to the end. But not everyone is that lucky. The truth is that for many (probably most) people, if they live long enough, they will face the prospect of what I call “the indignities of aging” that compromise (or destroy) one’s self esteem and sense of control.
Consider some of the most common indignities:
The inability to get up and down stairs.
The inability to walk.
The inability to drive.
The inability to get in and out of bed without assistance.
The inability to go to the toilet without assistance.
The inability to prepare meals or eat without assistance.
Each of these physical limitations is more than just inconvenient. Each impacts one’s sense of dignity and self worth. Each person who travels this path has to decide what they can or cannot accept. The emotional impact of adjusting to these “new normals” cannot be ignored by the adult children and others who play a role in trying to manage the process.
And these indignities are only the tip of the iceberg. We tend to think that old people fear dying. Perhaps. But my experience is that the idea of dying often pales in comparison to the prospect of losing your spouse, friends, and family members; being unable to stay in your home; having to rely on your children and others to manage your person and handle your affairs, essentially flipping the parent-child relationship on its head. And then there’s the specter of memory loss, the idea of becoming a doddering fool, drooling in the hallway of a nursing home, not knowing who the people around you are or why you are there, not even being able to find the words to speak.
People who enjoyed and got used to being admired, people who were in control during their working years, will often find it especially challenging to accept their own decline.
2. Who you were matters
I started this article with a story about two people facing the prospect of using a wheelchair. I was not surprised when the person telling me this story informed me that the father who was okay with using a wheelchair had been a factory worker, and the father-in-law who resisted being seen in a wheelchair had been a medical doctor. I have come to accept the idea that when it comes to the indignities of aging, the bigger they were, the harder they fall. People who enjoyed and got used to being admired, people who were in control during their working years, will often find it especially challenging to accept their own decline. And while one’s prior employment may be a good indicator of their predisposition, it is not always determinative. All sorts of things go into the mix of how one develops personality traits and how they process and adapt to the emotional impacts of aging.
3. What the law has absorbed and needs to absorb further
As a lawyer who works primarily in the realm of exploitation of vulnerable adults, I see the emotional impact of aging indignities play out in the families I work with and the cases that I take into courtrooms around the state.
What I struggle with is that the law of aging and exploitation is steeped in the traditional concept of “incapacity.” To invoke a court’s power to protect an older adult, or to set aside documents that an older adult created, it is usually necessary to show that they lacked the mental faculties to protect themselves or understand what they were doing. The personal emotional components do not currently provide a basis for legal relief. But that may be changing.
In recent years, the concept of a “vulnerable adult” has crept into the legal lexicon. At this stage, the label remains largely undefined, but promises, perhaps, to allow new understandings to lead the law to more enlightened legal theories. Important research has been done to support the idea that one’s susceptibility to exploitation is as often a product of social isolation and a reduced sense of control and empowerment as it is of cognitive impairment.
Someone once said: “Getting old is not for sissies.” That truth resonates with increased significance for the people and families who struggle through the aging process in this age where people can live to be 100.