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In My 80s, This Is What I Struggle With Most

It hasn't been easy but here's how I'm making it through.

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illustration of older lady leaving building surrounded by people walking by her
Melanie Lambrick
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When my friend Esther's mother died, her major solace was a co-worker, Jim. Jim was there every day to offer affection, compassion and humor. Then one day, Jim informed Esther that he was relocating to another city. Esther was heartbroken and shared her anguish with her therapist, who responded, "I'm so sorry to have to tell you this, but I'm afraid this will be our last session. I am closing down my practice."

Wow! Talk about a triple whammy! 

The price you pay for growing older is having to deal with loss. I’m a person who needs people, just like Barbra. I need an active social life. I need parties, and dinners, and game nights. In the past two years, my three oldest friends on the East Coast died. Then my five closest friends moved away from Los Angeles, where I live. These were the people with whom we celebrated holidays and birthdays and professional successes.

I felt isolated and abandoned, and I started having fantasies of moving across the country to the quiet rural town where my son and his family live. This, while totally forgetting that I hate quiet rural towns. I like large bustling cities.

I spent several weeks torturing my husband, Benni, with daily pity parties as I stared at my blank calendar. Yes, I am married, but — contrary to popular belief — married people can experience loneliness just as much as singletons. And then I went from stupid to smart. Instead of wallowing in passive misery, I decided to take action.

I started to reach out to the long list of people that I liked but had never made the effort to see. I had coffee with an old friend, who put me on her museum subscription. I started a weekly writers’ support group. I created a monthly neighborhood women’s group. I organized a Labor Day Block Party. And — the best news of all — our son and his family are flying out for my 85th birthday.

The loved ones I lost are not replaceable. We knew each other’s parents, we attended each other’s weddings, we watched each other’s kids grow up. The recent friends cannot offer that mutual lifelong history. But different is better than nothing, plus there is pleasure and excitement in forging new bonds.

Some losses are so tragic that I wonder how people survive them, but they do. My friend Sally had a son who died, and she mourns him every day of her life. She took a vacation recently to an exotic country. The trip included an intense study of the local culture and language. She was fascinated by all of it but felt guilty at the joy she was feeling. She called her therapist to ask how she could feel great sorrow and great bliss at the same time. The therapist said, “It’s called life."

Losing friends and family, health challenges and other changes are inevitable as we age. I live in an area of Los Angeles that is being gentrified, which means that a lot of the local mom-and-pop stores and restaurants are being replaced by high-end sneaker shops and overpriced cosmetics emporiums. These are not changes I have any control over, but — as Benni says — at least it gives me something to complain about.

One of the biggest changes I ever had to deal with happened a few years ago when we were forced to move. We had a lovely home for 20 years and then one day the walls came tumbling down: the building was sold and the new owner had plans for the property that did not include us. We were given 12 months to relocate.

I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t digest my food. I got daily attacks of dizziness, and palpitations and cold sweats which — with the help of Dr. Google — I promptly diagnosed as a series of strokes. My real physician said I was just suffering from anxiety and he suggested I try meditating. He’s kidding, right? Let me tell you something about meditation: it only works if you’re in a good mood.

So I did what any sensible person would do: I went to a hypnotist. And I listened to a tape of our session every day. “I am resourceful. I am brave. I can solve this problem. I am resourceful. I am brave. I can solve this problem.” Clearly, this was a load of crap. But my ignorant unconscious mind was dumb enough to believe it, so I began to function again.

Our search for a new residence was not an easy mission, but we finally succeeded and — miracle of miracles — we are much happier here than in our previous home. There are folks who believe that “when something bad happens, something good always follows.” That statement is usually a big fat lie. (As a matter of fact, even when something good happens — you better watch out for the bad that follows.)

But, in our housing crisis, that statement turned out to be true: Because the eviction that I thought was a life-destroying catastrophe turned out to be an astonishing stroke of good luck. Sometimes change is a good thing.

Are any of you in your 80s? What's the biggest challenge you're facing? Let us know in the comments below.

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