Sunday, July 18, 2010

Help! I am an 18-Year-Old Stuck in a 58-Year-Old Body With Parkinson's Disease

There was no dream too big. No limit to the adventures ahead. The sun was shining, the flowers blooming, and love was in the air. Life could only get better and better. At 18 years old, the world was literally my oyster, seeded with not just one pearl but an inexhaustible supply. I wanted them all.

Growing old or suffering some sickness were too far away to even imagine; a highly questionable long-term weather forecast that seemed irrelevant. We were still riding the waves of the ideal 1960s, when we, the flower-powered youth, commandeered the wheelhouse of culture, demanding change and chanting, "do not trust anyone over 30" (David Weinberger, University of California Berkeley, 1964).

40 years passed. Quickly! Those years were filled with pursuing dreams; sometimes realizing them with jubilation, and sometimes watching them die a slow, discouraging death. Most of us have now come to realize that, in our rebellion against authority, one thing we had forgotten was to "respect our elders". In fact, we had forgotten our elders altogether. The "old folks’ homes" were nonexistent to most of us back then. Parkinson's and other "old people’s diseases" were virtually unknown to young people. Of course, all that is changing. Now, when cursing the dizzying speed with which technology changes, we may whisper, at least to ourselves, "do not trust anyone under 30". We cannot seem to keep up to them. We are tiring of the panicked pace. But we do not know how to slow down and give up the control we have maintained for the past four decades. In fact, we may even fear that the youth of today will follow our example and relegate us to somewhat more upscale "old folks’ homes" to be left alone to question the quality and powerlessness of the lives we have left.

For many of us in this bloated demographic bubble called ‘baby boomers’, we have begun to realize the ironic comparison between the heady optimism of our teenage years, and the over-promising, under-delivering expectations we are sold on infomercials guaranteeing painlessness, performance and prosperity to defeat our skepticism. Somehow, to put our hope in either the drug-induced dreams of yesterday, or the pill-popping promises of tomorrow, seems hopelessly unrealistic.

Perhaps foolishly, I am still 18 at heart. But I seem to be indentured to a body that is insistent on teaching me about pain and imperfection, aging and disability. Despite these lessons, there remains in me, as there does in many other baby boomers, an enthusiasm, a curiosity, a thirst for learning and a heart that wants to see the world become a better place. But the 18-year-old heart has matured. While optimism may be more guarded, I cannot give up the belief that our generation can make a difference, both for ourselves and the generations to follow.

It is an exciting time to reclaim the best things about our youth: our communication of passion, our ability to understand power and influence, our willingness to work together despite differences. But instead of being distracted by protests, parties, pot and politics, we have an opportunity to use 40 years’ worth of skills and resources to focus on the needs of those who face, or will face, chronic and degenerative disease. That is more than a distant dream. It is attainable.


  1. Bob, you suckered me in with your last post. I never read blogs, but now I am drawn to yours. My "ideal" age is 26. If you woke me in the middle of the night and said."how old are you?" I am sure I would say 26. Yet most of the people and things that mean most to me now weren't around when i was 26. I wouldn't go back if i had to leave them behind.It occurs to me that since i am 7 years older than you, your 18 and my 26 were about the same year...1971?
    I'm going to send you a Peggy Noonan column from yesterday that i think you will find of interest on a somewhat similar subject.

  2. 1971 for me too, and I was 21, my favorite time. Actually 1970 was the best. I was in college, had a job, was a "somebody" in my business club, and had a great Mustang to drive. No rebellion from me. I honored my parents and shared a bedroom with Grandma until I got married, so I respected her too. But to this day my insides see me as 21, and I get a real shock when I see my own pictures. Biggest shock is someone I knew back then died this week, I haven't seen them in 30 years, and the picture in the paper - oh my gosh, I wouldn't have recognized them in a million years. I ran and got my camera and made a picture and compared to high school year book, and oh, I too are different. Time marches on, and we age, but in our minds, we remain that golden age. Thanks for putting into a blog exactly what I said to my 25 year old son just Friday.