“There’s a moment when people know — whatever their skills are at denial — that they have passed from what they can delude themselves into thinking is middle age to something that you could call the third act.” Nora Ephron
First, let me say denial is powerful. It can both serve us and hurt us, but in the end it must be faced and addressed. Though I am living the sixth decade of my life, a thirty-something still resides inside, a youthful, progressive-thinking woman trying to figure what she wants to be when she grows up. I am always surprised when I look in the mirror and see my sixty-something self.
It’s taken me years to learn how to live well, and recently, live well alone. And, when I say alone, I mean when I close the door to my home. I am loved and supported by friends, family, colleagues, collaborators and fellow travelers. My community, my tribe is a phone call, email, or text nearby. I’m connected in ways I never imagined.
This summer I moved into the vibrant Bassett Street neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin, downtown and west of the State Capitol. I live at the intersection of a dead end street and the Capital City Bike Trail. My neighbors are predominantly students at the University of Wisconsin, young urban professionals, and empty-nesters who have moved into converted warehouse lofts, contemporary new apartment construction, and upscale condos, seeking city life.
It wasn’t until recently I began to think more about aging and started to ask myself the difficult questions, how long will I continue to have to work (and want to work)? Today, I enjoy working most days, yet many of my friends and family have begun to retire. Those who can afford to are traveling and living lives very different than before. Will I have enough money to afford basic healthcare and maintain my independence? Will I be able to age in place? Lastly, the most fear-inducing question, who will take care of me, if I’m unable to care for myself?
Some personal data: I don’t have children, and I’m currently not in a partnership or marriage. I live alone and I’m self-supporting, though like many others of my generation, I do not have sufficient financial reserves for retirement and to support me for what I hope to be a life expectancy into my eighties or nineties, especially if family genetic longevity is predicative. My health for the most part is good mostly due to my ability to currently afford healthcare and the prescriptions which manage my various conditions.
My denial was challenged when I was diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and the hand surgeon recommended endoscopic surgery on both hands. I smiled and declined his recommendation. “Let’s do it one hand at a time. I live alone.” Later this month, I will temporarily lose the services of my dominant right hand as I recover. It’s made me realize how quickly the quality of my life and my cherished independence could be challenged. I pride myself on my independence, mostly because asking for and accepting help is not my strong suit.
I’m fortunate that both my parents, who are in their eighties are still living together in the home they purchased almost 60 years ago and in which they raised their family of six children. They both worked and retired at the ages of 55 and 60 with pensions and annuities to support them in their “Golden Years.” My mother has had a number of health issues and procedures, including quadruple heart bypass surgery, and loss of sight in one eye, yet with my father’s care and the support of my siblings and their spouses, they remain independent.
This past week, I watched the Frontline documentary on PBS, “Life and Death in Assisted Living;” I was shocked and horrified, my denial broken. First, I imagined one of my parents in this scenario then it didn’t take long to envision myself there too. I’m afraid, very afraid.
I’ve been a lifelong activist beginning with the fight for racial equality and protection of civil rights, to protesting the Vietnam War, as a leader in the second wave of feminism, facilitating consciousness-raising groups and marching on Washington for freedom of choice and equal rights under the law and finally for the past thirty years as an LGBTQ activist. As I look ahead, I see my calling, in this my Third Act, as tackling issues related to aging, especially in regards to aging in place, healthcare and ensuring independence and quality of life.
When I read about efforts to create intentional communities and the growing success and creation of LGBTQ senior housing, I begin to see a future in which I can invest and thrive. I will use the time during my recovery from hand surgery to begin researching and plotting a strategy on how I can contribute and work towards this goal for which I have a vested interest. I will first envision then help to build a space, to be managed by interdependence, cooperation and shared community, a home and a chosen family, where we can age in place together.