Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Imprisonment of Old Age

The final chapter of my latest book, Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives, is titled “The Imprisonment of Old Age.” In that chapter, Harold Whittington, a ninety-two-year-old WW II veteran, offers the following:

“That got me thinking about something I’ve never considered—being young might be more difficult than being old. I believe there are three distinct phases to life: youth, retirement, and old age. The first and the last phases can be difficult, so perhaps retirement allows us to catch our breath before we undertake life’s final challenges. I’m in old age now, but I would not want to be young again.

“What I remember most about being young was the chronic lack of sleep, a time when the only extra-curricular activity I had was work. My entire “youth” was defined by working, and I worked extreme hours. I held down multiple jobs and eked out a living. Anything “fun” was out of the question. I would not want to do that again. Being young was not fun; it was hard.

“I believe today’s young people are confronted with the same issues Otto and I faced. They must work hard to survive…or fall by the wayside. It’s a choice, and the only advice I can offer to them is this: the retirement years make the pain worthwhile. I kept working and it was worth it. There is no easy way to get to the retired phase of life. Young people must work hard and have faith.”

I am now in old age and clearly understand Harold’s advice. Like him, my youth was spent working hard. I came from a poor family. There were no breaks. There were no vacations. There was only work—long hours and very few weekends off. I worked three jobs during college and was drafted into the military three days after graduation from the University of Washington. I managed to avoid a stint in the Marines by joining the AF, a lucky break when another individual failed his physical in eastern Washington. I believe one of the most important messages Officers Training School had to offer was, “Officers Compete!” That guideline followed me through my military career. Those who did not compete were subject to RIF—reduction in force. The hours were long; education and excellent grades were mandatory. Officers compete.

I traveled extensively, something my wife hated. When I retired, my wife believed we might settle down and slow down. That did not happen. I left the military as a LT COL, a mid-level manager. As a civilian, however, I was again at the bottom of the pile. I worked extreme hours to inch my way up the civilian hierarchy. Travel gradually became vital to my job, and eventually became far more prominent than it had been in the military. My wife chafed at that. Our children reached the terrible teens and our family disintegrated. Divorce then stripped away everything I had worked for all my life. Judges are not interested in equal distribution, but in keeping those who have never worked and took no effort to attain training off the welfare rolls. I was destitute, but I had a good job.

I met my current wife in that time frame. She was young and ambitious. We soon agreed to be a couple and developed a written ten-year plan to reach retirement. The plan required an incredible amount of commitment and a load of work. We both threw everything we had into it. In less than ten years we quit working for good, a feat possible only because we both were dedicated to the plan and had expended great effort to become well educated when we were younger.

I have been retired for over sixteen years now. Most of that time has been good. I wrote books when I wanted, did anything I wanted, and went anywhere I wanted. I believed that would be the course of my life until I died. I was wrong; Harold was right—retirement was the break I needed to rest up, the break to prepare for old age. My wife, fourteen years my younger, developed Minimal Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a precursor to early onset Alzheimer’s. I am now a caretaker. My wife is my job. I love her with all my heart and will ensure she lacks for nothing as she goes through what must be the most terrifying experience of her life.

What Harold wrote is true. Retirement prepares a person for old age. Old age is not fun. It is work. If you are lucky the mind remains strong, but the body hurts most of the time. Stamina ebbs. Medical issues creep into every aspect of life. If you are not lucky, the mind ebbs as well. The world slips away until even the memory of the world fades.

So why am I writing this? If one young person takes heed of it, then this blog will be worthwhile. Working hard when young is preparation for retirement. And retirement is vital to weathering the end game. Harold is surviving his end game because he gave his all when he was young. He also had many good years during retirement. His memory has faded now. His wife of nearly 70 years has died. He hurts. Life for him is not good. I am just entering that phase of life, but I enter knowing I will make it to the end with dignity. I will care for my wife until she passes into the oblivion of Alzheimer’s, and enough will remain for others to care for me when the time comes.

My advice is now the same Harold’s: work hard and prepare for your end game while you can. Old age is truly the final imprisonment.

Thanks for reading,

James L. Hatch    


Tina Donahue said...

Great post, James. Unfortunately, for today's young people and children, the future isn't going to be nice. With AI and automation taking countless jobs, working hard won't be enough anymore. Everyone can't be a genius or talented. Many are ordinary, but hard working. However if there are no jobs, no amount of effort is going to help them. Romney blithely said they should ask their parents for a loan to start their own business. Hard to do when their parents are working three jobs simply to put food on the table. The same with retirement. As employers increasingly depress wages and inflation raises the price of everything, particularly housing and medical care, saving anything for a rainy day is a pipe dream. The dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest system we have, isn't working for the vast majority of Americans, especially those of color. As a white female born in a middle-class family, I understand how easy I had it. Cops don't stop me for every little thing. My education allowed me to work at good jobs. I was never hungry or homeless. Not all children grow up like that and it's not their fault they lost the birth lottery. Rather than telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we should be offering a helping hand and stopping corporate welfare, privatizing profits and socializing their losses. The only ones in this country who live by pure capitalism are the 99%. The 1% have socialism, courtesy of the government they paid for and their lobbyists. I'd like my taxes to pay for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education, infrastructure, and other things that help people, rather than war and enriching those who already have billions.

James L. Hatch said...

Noted, but hard work is still the key. My dad was an electrician. My mom was a secretary. Dad had a 6th grade education; mom graduated high school. They both quit their jobs relatively early to go into business for themselves. After dad's business failed, they both put everything they had into a fishing boat and went to Alaska. They never returned despite many setbacks (including the Alaska earthquake in 1986). As then, there will always be high-paying blue collar jobs. People always need plumbers, carpenters, and electricians, just to mention a few. Yes, the high-skill future jobs will take the cream of the crop, but it is still true that the trades garner higher pay initially than college graduates receive. I began my working career mowing lawns and delivering papers. Later I worked in a meat market, grocery store, saw mill, loading logs on Japanese ships, concessions at a drive in movie, power construction, commercial fisherman, and the like. Nothing paid well except the power construction job. Nevertheless, I could always pull together enough cash to pay for my college expenses over the five years it took me to graduate. I did not have a silver spoon, but I did have a strong work ethic. That is critical -- and vital to making it to the end of life with dignity. Just my opinion.

Tina Donahue said...

Duly noted, James. However, your father wasn't in jail (as so many men are) and your mother had a decent job (not a drug habit from doctor-prescribed opioids or street drugs). They worked together for the future. Not every child is lucky enough to have that or an intact family. What about those who grow up in foster care or are so severely abused they're damaged emotionally? Not every child is provided white privilege. It exists. All you have to do is compare how many white motorists are gunned down by cops as compared to people of color. The white kid in Florida who ate off peoples' faces in a frenzied attack wasn't shot by the cops. They simply put him into custody. Doubtful a person of color would have gotten the same kid glove treatment. Even if good paying blue collar jobs still exist in the future (I don't see how, considering tech is trying to automate everything), millions can't be plumbers. Millions can't be electricians or carpenters. Only a select few can. Even those who start their own businesses will have tons of competition from others who can't find jobs at companies. Plus, as plumbing and wiring improve - which they probably will - the need to fix them will diminish, throwing those people out of work. Already virtual printers are revolutionizing construction. Just look at driverless vehicles, AI that performs surgery better than surgeons and can diagnose without a physician's help. Those doctors aren't going to make a living as they used to no matter how hard they work. The same goes for others who are determined superfluous by our economy and Wall Street.

Just saying, you and your parents' experience isn't everyone's. As Mary T. Lathrap's poem states, before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.

Fiona McGier said...

I've worked since I was 15. These days I work multiple jobs, 13-hour days. I'm almost to retirement age, but doubt husband and I will be able to retire on time, if ever. Maybe we should have mortgaged the house a third time and started a business? But neither of us ever had that desire. We just wanted to work hard, earn enough to get by, and have time to revel in raising our 4 kids. We achieved most of that, but we're going to be paying off what we borrowed to help them with college for quite some time.

I'd love for us to retire someday...maybe to a cabin on a lake somewhere? Husband could fish as much as he likes, and I'd write books. The simple life is what we both desire. Hope springs eternal.