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A Life Worth Ending

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Mike Wallace, that indefatigable network newsman, died last month in a burst of stories about his accomplishments and character. I focused, though, on a lesser element in the Times’ obituary, that traditional wave-away line: “He had been ill for several years.”

“What does that mean?” I tweeted the young reporter whose byline was on the obit. Someone else responded that it meant Wallace was old. Duh! But then I was pointed to a Washington Post story mentioning dementia. The Times shortly provided an update: Wallace had had bypass surgery four years ago and had been at a facility in Connecticut ever since.

This is not just a drawn-out, stoic, and heroic long good-bye. This is human carnage. Seventy percent of those older than 80 have a chronic disability, according to one study; 53 percent in this group have at least one severe disability; and 36 percent have moderate to severe cognitive impairments; you definitely don’t want to know what’s considered to be a moderate impairment.

From a young and healthy perspective, we tend to look at dementia as merely ­Alzheimer’s—a cancerlike bullet, an unfortunate genetic fate, which, with luck, we’ll avoid. In fact, Alzheimer’s is just one form—not, as it happens, my mother’s—of the ­ever-more-encompassing conditions of cognitive collapse that are the partners and the price of longevity.

There are now more than 5 million demented Americans. By 2050, upward of 15 million of us will have lost our minds.

Speaking of price: This year, the costs of dementia care will be $200 billion. By 2050, $1 trillion.

Make no mistake, the purpose of long-term-care insurance is to help finance some of the greatest misery and suffering human beings have yet devised.

I hesitate to give my mother a personality here. It is the argument I have with myself everyday—she is not who she was; do not force her to endure because of what she once was. Do not sentimentalize. And yet … that’s the bind: She remains my mother.

She graduated from high school in 1942 and went to work for the Paterson Evening News, a daily newspaper in New Jersey. In a newsroom with many of its men off to war, Marguerite Vander Werf—nicknamed “Van” in the newsroom and forevermore—shortly became the paper’s military reporter. Her job was to keep track of the local casualties. At 18, a lanky 95 pounds in bobby socks, my mother would often show up at a soldier’s parent’s front door before the War Department’s telegraph and have to tell these souls their son was dead. Many decades later, she would still go pensive at this memory. She married my father, Lew Wolff, an adman, and left the paper after eleven years to have me—then my sister, Nancy, and brother, David. She did freelance journalism and part-time PR work (publicity, it was called then). She was a restless and compelling personality who became a civic power in our town, elected to the board of education and taking charge of the public library, organizing and raising the money for its new building and expansion. She was the Pied Piper, the charismatic mom, a talker of great wit and passion—holding the attention of children and dinner-party drunks alike.

My father, whose ad agency had wide swings of fortune, died, suddenly, in that old-fashioned way, of a heart attack at 63, during one of the downswings. My mother was 58—the age I am now—and left with small resources. She applied her charm and guile to a breathtaking reinvention and personal economic revival, becoming a marketing executive at first one and then another pharmaceutical company. At 72, headed to retirement but still restless, she capped off her career as the marketing head of an online-game company.

For 25 years, she lived in an apartment building in Ridgewood, New Jersey, in a sitcom mode of sociability and gossip. Once a week, every week, she drove into Manhattan to cook dinner for my family and help my three children with their homework—I am not sure how I would have managed my life and raised children without her.

This is the woman, or what is left of this woman, who now resides in a studio apartment in one of those new boxy buildings that dot the Upper West Side—a kind of pre-coffin, if you will. It is even, thanks to my sister’s diligence, my mother’s LTC insurance and savings, and the contributions of my two siblings and me, what we might think of as an ideal place to be in her condition. It is a spacious room with a large picture window that, from the ninth floor and my mother’s bed, has an uninterrupted view across town. The light pours in. The weather performs. The seasons change. A painting from 1960 by March Avery, from the collection she and my father assembled—an Adirondack chair facing a blue sea—hangs in front of her. Below the painting is the flat-screen TV where she watches cooking shows with a strange intensity. She is attended 24/7 by two daily shifts of devoted caregivers.


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