Old people don’t like responsibility, but we fear its loss. Those ideas may seem disrespectful, yet once articulated, they’re often obvious. Responsibility has been on my mind lately—I’m liking it less and less. Dogs can sleep for hours, day or night, with no guilt.
Old-age gurus, like Cicero, about whom I wrote so admiringly a few weeks ago, encourage seniors to fight against inevitable decline and loss of responsibility. Cicero captured my mood then, but now, just a few weeks later, his message resonates like cheerleaders near the end of a game—a little beside the point.
Back in middle life, with a career and family, I seemed to crave responsibility. I accepted new assignments at work, even solicited them, and the added responsibility gave a thrill.
Life is different now. When I retired and Barbara was still working I offered to take over the checking account and pay the bills. I did it for a month or two, but then the checkbook and I entered a long estrangement. The bills more or less followed. About four years later Barbara insisted she take back responsibility for family finance.
With friends, I joked about being in charge of our family’s nuclear energy and foreign policy. Of course most of that work could be done from a recliner in front of a TV.
Other people shed responsibility too. A retired men I know emphasizes that he no longer lets anyone give him orders. Working life exhausted his capacity for commands. An aunt of ours neglected her taxes for seven or eight years before dying. Several old people we have known neglected their homes, a little at first, then a lot.
Downsizing is popular among seniors. Often cast as a sensible virtue—smaller house, more compact living, less stuff, less work, lower costs—it also means less responsibility.
Several people I know are afraid to retire, saying they aren’t sure what they’ll do with the time. I think it’s something else—they are afraid of becoming insignificant. Responsibility, however stressful, gives us ways of staying relevant in society. In a word, responsibility confers meaning.
We become ambivalent. We want relief from commitment, but we aren’t ready to be irrelevant and useless. Meanwhile the lawn and bushes grow, weeds flourish, and the paint peels. Everything begins to look wild and primeval.
One of my fondest memories, one that stays in my mind, involves a four-day weekend Barbara and I spent at a timeshare in the mountains of north Georgia. We took a few clothes, a couple of credit cards, and books. We took a couple of walks, but mostly we read. We read, napped, and read. Then we went to dinner. We read when it was sunny and when it rained. We read on the balcony overlooking a forest, in the house, in all the different chairs, and at the table. A wonderful weekend.
Growing less meaningful or significant is hard to experience, yet it awaits us. Let’s think of it as rest, and let’s keep open the option to rest for a long time.