Wondering about the inevitable: Who's going to take care of us when we can't?

While on a cruise to Antarctica in 2007, we had the good fortune to befriend a woman from San Miguel with whom we have remained close even as our life situations have changed. It’s those kinds of friendships that make San Miguel a special place. 

Sadly, about three years ago she had a stroke that initially left her quite impaired, plus six months later her husband died. Following a bout of depression, mourning and therapy, she has regained her full mental faculties and speech but not her ability to walk. The vivacious woman who used to take Pilates classes and brisk walks a couple of times a week now needs someone’s help to get in and out of our car  when we take her to dinner, and spends a great deal of her time watching television, often in the company of only her gray tabbies, Diego and Frida, and someone from her round-the-clock care support staff.

Fortunately, her two daughters have effectively assumed guardianship, and keep in close contact by phone and periodic visits to San Miguel to check on her affairs, finances and medical care. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, one of the daughters discovered one of the caretakers was overcharging for services, and one other reeked of alcohol. Both were fired. 

When we got home ten days ago, after another very pleasant dinner with our elderly friend, I posed a question to Stew that also had been gnawing him: “With no children to take care of us, how are we going to manage when we reach her age, and physical and perhaps mental infirmities bear down on us, especially if one of us dies first?”

It’s hardly a frivolously morbid concern. Stew and I are 74 and 73 years old, not nearly as old, or impaired, as many of our friends in their 80s and even 90s. But we’re headed that way, or so we hope.

It’s a tough conversation to have even among friends. I imagine it’s a similar kind of unease that frequently keeps people from dictating a will—and contemplating their own death in black and white.  

Someone I know tip-toed around that Great Unpleasantness by prefacing his will with the phrase “in case of my demise,” as if his “demise”, i.e. death, were optional or negotiable, instead of a more definitive reality like, “when I inevitably kick the bucket, this is what I want y’all to do with my belongings, including my cat Sam.”

Indeed, the subjects of old age and eventual death have been massaged a thousand different ways, as long as man has roamed the earth. A group in San Miguel offered a series of talks about how to manage a “peaceful death,” which in extremis, could be expedited by either withholding medical care or some other intervention. 

Or the deeply religious might hope for “life everlasting”—and that it be in the first-class lounge Upstairs, please God.

Back in ancient Rome, the Stoic philosophers posited the opposite of denial or wishful thinking about death. Their rather cheerless motto, “Memento mori,” or “remember your own death,” urges folks to accept death as inescapable and in the meantime, squeeze as much juice as they can out of every day.

Let us balance life’s books each day.” said Seneca, the leading Stoic thinker. “The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.

But that doesn’t answer how we deal with mounting infirmities, and possible loneliness, before we depart. Church services regularly remind us to pray for the sick, lonely or dearly departed, and in a retirement pasture like San Miguel, such invocations can get scarily long-winded. 

People with children or a very close family may assume relatives will take care of them, but in modern society that’s hardly a certainty. “The kids,” siblings or other relations are often beset with their own obligations and tribulations, and not so willing to assume the additional burden of caring for a feeble parent or relative. 

And even then, an elderly person may not want to abandon the nest-like comfort of a home they have built in San Miguel over the years, along with a circle of close friends, in exchange for an epilogue in someone’s spare bedroom.

For gay couples or otherwise childless people—of whom there are quite a few in San Miguel—elderly care options are even more elusive. 

Stew and I have talked about a “Plan B” for life after San Miguel, particularly if one us should come down with a chronic health problem, but so far we can’t even come up with an outline or a draft. And it’s not just a matter of having enough money, but also of making qualitative decisions about where and how to spend one’s last days. 

An older couple at the 2019 Pride Parade in Mexico City:
No “Plan B”? No problema at least for today!

We have noodled the idea of moving back to the States, but the idea of decamping our ranch, which we have created over the past ten years into our own piece of heaven, and the circle of friends we have found here, doesn’t have much appeal—yet. 

My bets now are with the Stoics, Buddhists and others who focus on living a day at a time as the sanest solution for the perplexing and inescapable dilemmas that lie ahead. That may be my own kind of denial. 

And meanwhile, this weekend we’re headed to Mexico City, to participate in the Gay Pride Parade, a raucous event that was cancelled last year because of the pandemic. “Plan B” will have to wait.    

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