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The inevitability of age

City Sage



During a joyously misspent youth, I thought of old age as one might think of northeast Wyoming — a singularly bleak and unpleasant place where no sane person would willingly go. One's life journey should be a cheerful excursion through sunny uplands, golden beaches, sparkling seas and gleaming cities, ending in some agreeably distant nirvana.

Aching knees? Uncertain finances? A body that can't do what it's supposed to do, like climb up a shaky ladder and fix a rotting sill on a second-story window? That was not part of the narrative. Old age would see me ensconced in a leather chair before the fireplace, faithful dogs curled up at my feet, re-reading Tolstoy, or Evelyn Waugh, or Winston Churchill's magisterial history of World War II.

And here I am, with all of those things. The dogs snoring on the carpet, the comfortable blue leather couches (nicely mended with black duct tape where the dogs have scratched through), Churchill on the shelf. Winston will have to wait, though — snowy Sundays are reserved for the NFL.

I have an interesting job, a loving (and lovely!) spouse, great friends, an office with a window, four new tires on the ancient SUV, and a newly rebuilt road bike. It's a great life, exactly what I hoped life in the 70s might be.

Aching knees? Advil. Rotting window sills? Forget 'em. "You realize," says my friend Robert Shonkwiler, "that there are people who will come to your house, do those repairs, give you a bill, and then you give them money."

Robert, I get all of that except the "give them money" part.

John Barlow, a rancher in northeast Wyoming, once described its climate: "We have three seasons. Winter, Mud and August." In the northeast Wyoming of old age, August comes first. The sun may be shining, but winter awaits.

In the dozen years since I moved to the west side, the neighborhood has changed. Its physical geography remains the same — block after block of century-old houses, some carefully renovated, others picturesquely dilapidated.

The human geography is different. The lissome women who once floated in and out of my next-door neighbor Mike's cottage are now white-haired ladies of a certain age. The kids across the street are grown and gone, with children of their own. Two blocks away, enrollment at West Middle School has plummeted and School District 11 is considering closure.

Ours is a neighborhood of old people. In 2000, a friendly retired couple living across the alley welcomed us to the west side. He died a few years ago, but she's still there. Their son stops by frequently to help out, and she's managed to avoid the fate we all dread.

The assisted living center. The nursing home. The last stop, the room where you'll die.

Every couple I know has made the same vow to each other: "You won't go there, as long as I'm alive." But can they manage? Most likely, there won't be a choice. One or both will be carried away by Alzheimer's, the infirmities of age, illness or accident.

It'd be nice to age in place, to stay in our home for many years to come. That probably won't be possible — like most west-side houses, ours is far from wheelchair-accessible. Upgrading would be unaffordable for us — and, I suspect, for most of our neighbors.

We're a tiny part of the slow demographic revolution transforming not only Old Colorado City, but America itself. What will you do with us when we can't drive, can't work, and don't want to leave our homes? Will you cut our meager benefits and let us rot? Or will you come in accessible vans and cart us off to the government-funded storage units where the old go to dissipate their pitiful savings and create revenue for the health-care industry?

Go ahead and try. I'll be sitting on my porch with an eight-pack of PBR, the overgrown yard patrolled by a pack of snarling curs, shaking my cane, muttering incoherent curses, fighting for the life I so prize. You'll never take me alive! Let me rot in peace.

And afterward, the neighbors will take note.

"They took away Old Man Hazlehurst," they'll say. "They tried to get Mike, too, but his girlfriend already had him committed..."

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