What happens when you grow old?

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
— T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

What happens when you grow old? Do you look and dress differently? Do your habits change? Do your perspectives change? What is different? (What stays the same?)

I’m abstracting as I tend to, but the concrete starting point is a recurring thought about my dear grandmother. She recently fell down a set of concrete stairs and tragically lost the ability to walk unaided.

“Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” rings in my ears. I cannot imagine my Korean-speaking grandmother ever saying that (in any language). In my mind’s eye, I see her crumpled against the cold stairs of my aunt’s three-story concrete building, which doubles as a residence and place of business. I don’t hear much beyond a low whimper. I wonder how long it took for my aunt or my aunt’s housekeeper to realize she was missing and to find her. And immediately I feel a pang.

To be honest, when I think of my grandmother navigating a set of stairs, a tandem image emerges: that of a toddler trying out a set of stairs before she can balance and sustain her weight on one foot. The toddler instinctively grasps for the banister and goes slowly, step by step. There is usually a mother nearby, keeping a watchful eye and encouraging the child along.

My grandmother does not want to be compared to a child and would be disapproving if I told her I had. She does not want me, her daughters, or anyone else keeping watch over her walk down any stairs. If any of us uttered a word of encouragement, she would feel patronized. The truth is that my grandmother has a very clear memory of when she used to be able to run up and down those same stairs. That capable person is alive and well in her mind’s eye.

In her mind’s eye, she is creative, resourceful, and whole.

This is a realization that makes me stop short: She rejects today’s version of herself. This is not who she is. She is an accomplished teacher turned retiree who gardens on the roof of her middle daughter’s building. The small plot is startlingly productive, and I easily slip into comparing her four decades’ crop of grade-school students with perfectly grown pimentos, lettuce, and tomatoes. If she gives up her garden, who is she then?

What’s next in old age is unclear but clearly less desirable. I have to fundamentally accept aging as a slowing down and as a giving back of abilities I have carefully honed over a lifetime. It would behoove me to forget or just let go of a younger, abler me. My grandmother is not good at this. And I don’t think I will be very good at it either.

The understanding is a powerful one, but I don’t know how to convert it to being helpful. I don’t want to make my grandmother feel three years old again. I also don’t want to confirm that she is 83 by buying her a cane. I want to help her feel strong and able — at whatever middle age she wants to be. And she has been helping me with some inspiration:

I recently learned that she uses a long sturdy umbrella in place of a cane. What a clever idea! Both have curved handles and can support her little body. But one makes her feel old and broken. There must be a great many more umbrellas out there. Umbrellas for sunny days: I think that’s what you need when you grow old.

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