Writer urges families to talk about aging
Most people prefer not to think about old age, their loved ones’ or their own, but Paula Span is immersed in the topic.
“Personally, I don’t find it depressing,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Montclair. “I find it interesting, and it’s satisfying to provide a real service.”
As she pointed out, “We’re facing an unprecedented situation dealing with old age, in the complexity of the issues involved and how long it lasts.”
The award-winning 65-year-old journalist wrote a book, When the Time Comes: Families with Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions (2009) and now writes for The New York Times “New Old Age” blog.
On Tuesday, Oct. 28, she will share the lessons she has learned in a talk, “The Years Ahead — Caring for Yourself and Your Loved Ones: Wellness, Purpose, and What Keeps Us Going,” at a breakfast at Greenacres Country Club in Lawrenceville. The event, which is open to the community, is hosted by Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County and Greenwood House senior facility in Ewing.
Span said she plans to discuss topics that tend to go “undiscussed” — like support for caregivers, the perils of over-medication and excessive testing, and — perhaps most important — having a reason to get up every day.
Span said she “fell” into the subject of aging by dealing with her own parents, who have both since died. “I was lucky,” she said. “They were both rational right until the end.” Many of the topics that go “undiscussed” in most families — like where to live if they can’t stay in their own home or at what point to stop treatment — “were normal discussions for us.”
She is divorced and has a “terrific” daughter in her 30s who tries to stop her mother from talking about this stuff. But knowing her parents’ wishes made the tough times at the end of their lives infinitely easier for her — and them.
Of course, gathering information comes more easily to her than it might to most. Span, who grew up in south Jersey, said, “I wanted to be a reporter since the fourth grade, when I read back-to-back children’s biographies of Joseph Pulitzer and Nellie Bly — and that’s what I became.”
For many years, she was the New York correspondent for the Washington Post, covering topics ranging from the AIDS epidemic and financial industry upheavals to arts and culture. She started writing the “New Old Age” blog five years ago, “and I still haven’t run out of topics.”
There is clear and growing interest in the subject, judging by the massive reader response some of her essays have elicited. It is important, Span stressed, that everyone tackle this “radioactive” issue and envision solutions before problems arise or communication becomes impossible.