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Primed: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
We've started to have the conversation, but we haven't had the conversation — the one with my parents about where they're going to live in their later years. It's common in Indian culture for aging parents to move in with their adult kids. My siblings and I have joked — but also more or less decided — that if they're moving in with anyone, it's my older sister. She's the most stable and responsible. Plus, she's got the scrumptious grandkids. Maybe she and my brother-in-law will even build a house out back for all four aging grandparents to live together. Again, hypothetical, but also serious.

My parents are in superb health and seemingly far from slowing down, but as they've struggled in various ways to support and care for their own aging parents, they've made one thing clear: they want to make it easy for themselves and for us. But how do we all make that intention a reality?

This is Embodied — our show tackling sex, relationships and your health. I'm Anita Rao.

We all know that we're in aging bodies, but making real tangible preparations for caring for those aging bodies means real talk. One person who is not shying away from having these conversations, Steven Petrow — and it all started for him with a list.

Steven Petrow
I was in my very early 50s, and my parents were in their 70s at that point. And I'm the eldest son. I'm a journalist, and I started just kind of writing down the things that I thought they were doing wrong, and it became this very long list.

Anita Rao
That list got published as a column in the New York Times in 2017, and as you can imagine — a lot of people saw it.

Steven Petrow
More than 200 people sent me their lists, so there was like this whole army of people around the world keeping tabs on their parents. And in one way, it's like: Oh, we're all snitches. That's really what I was doing, and what I could see they were doing was trying to create a roadmap to have a smarter, older age — and then it became a book.

Anita Rao
That book is Steven's latest work: "Stupid Things I Won't Do When I Get Old." And his reflections in there are not just about future Steven.

Steven Petrow
When I was making this list, I thought I was just going to add to the list forever. And I was never going to have to do any of these things because there was a level of denial there. We're not going to get old. But I am 64 — and about two years ago, I realized the time to start acting had come and really happened in a very funny way, sort of.

I was on my desk, I had a foot on the desk, I had a foot on the chair, I wasn't wearing shoes and I was trying to get a book off the top shelf of the bookcase — and I still couldn't reach it. And so I'm jumping up into the air to get it, and I stopped and I said: I am being my dad, because this is what happens, and this is a stupid thing. Get off, get a stepladder and do it the right way — and that was a real shift for me because that was the first time I sort of implemented one of these things.

Anita Rao
Other items on Steven's list had specific actionable changes, like: stop driving if my capability is questioned and foster inter-generational relationships. And those actions that would set Steven apart from aging in the way his parents did were rooted in a shift in mindset.

Steven Petrow
So one thing I noticed with my parents, in their 70s and their cohort of friends, was that they had joined what I like to call "the organ recital." And what that was, was when they would get together for dinner, for drinks, for a while they would be talking about all of their physical ailments and conditions.

And you know, in a way, it's kind of humorous to talk about, but there's actually a serious side to it, which is the more that we think being older is a negative, it impacts how we how we feel about ourselves — and it actually makes it much more likely that we'll have physical disease, we'll have a mental disease or we will live longer.

These associations need to be broken apart. And, you know, aging is is not a bad thing. It's a good thing. There's wisdom; there's maturity; there's experience. So that was one of the biggest shifts that I've really worked on that I talked about a lot, and people seem to resonate with because so many are talking about the aches and the pains. I say: Just keep it to the length of one drink, whether it's alcoholic or not.

Anita Rao
This internalized and externalized ageism gets passed down to us through generations. And it's often what keeps us from making our intentions about aging into reality. The realization crystallized for Steven when he discovered some of his grandmother's writings.

Steven Petrow
I'd like to think that I'm going to do everything new and different than my parents, and then my grandparents. And so my grandmother was a librarian, and she kept journals for decades. And after she died, I found this list that included things like: I will remain mobile, I will stay open to friends of different generations, I will take advice from people. And it was so much the same kind of things that I was writing down.

And at the same time, she was stubborn — like my dad was stubborn — and she didn't do many of these things that she was hoping to. And she fell. That happened to her, that happened to my dad, and I'm wondering: Oh my gosh, is this still in my DNA? That's the question that we'll see. I guess the fact that I got stepladder out is a good sign.

Anita Rao
There you go. Steven hopes these small actions will take him forward in the right direction, but he's also approaching the path of aging by working backward.

Steven Petrow
Through my 50s, I was very focused on what are called resume values. What was my job? What was my title? How many followers did I have on on Twitter or Facebook? And that has shifted now over time to what are commonly called eulogy virtues. But it's really: How do you want people to think about you? How do you want people to remember you?

I don't really want them to remember that I had, you know, 30,000 or whatever followers, but rather that hopefully, I was a nice person. I did things for people, and so I'm much more intentional about trying to live that kind of life these days. And do the work and be a member of my community than I ever was. And in a way, I'm finding it much more fulfilling. And I just happened to be talking to a 29-year-old fellow this morning, he said: What's the roadmap for life? And I kind of explained that to him, and I could see he wasn't getting it and I said: Well, maybe you need to experience it.

Anita Rao
Preparing for aging requires introspection. Steven's doing a lot of that through writing and talking about his book. For 69-year-old Barbara, it's been about making space for hard emotions.

Barbara
My preparations have involved trying to reduce anxiety by assuming that I'm ready for whatever may come — having documents such as a will and final directives and emergency contacts filed with my doctor, my attorney and my friends. Trying to prepare myself for the unknown, though, is a thorny problem.

Anita Rao
Barbara lives in a co-housing community in Durham for LGBTQ plus folks and their allies. While living in community, she's processing all of these changes, as well as preparing for logistics.

Barbara
Will there be enough money in the event of some catastrophic illness, in the event that I need a home health aide or even a live-in nurse? How would I manage to pay for that? I'm generally saving what I can get. I know that I didn't build a large enough nest egg, so doing research into this, knowing what my options may be, is one way to feel less fraught.

Anita Rao
Barbara is still thinking about these preparations for aging as she enters her 70s, but some folks get an even earlier start.

Vega Subramaniam
In the early 2000s, Mala and I decided that we needed to take a break — a life break and do some intentional life planning, and so we took a weekend and envisioned our life — kind of created that eulogy and envisioned our life when we retired, and then work backward from there. And that was when we were in our sort of late 30s, approaching middle age and we were seeing our own parents getting older and we were thinking — you know, we're queer, we don't have children — not that you can rely on children to take care of you — but, you know, we don't have a safety net.

Anita Rao
That's Vega Subramaniam. She and her wife Mala Nagarajan, who you're gonna meet in just a moment, live and work together in Maryland. They're both nonprofit social justice consultants and coaches at their business, Vega Mala Consulting. They help folks with leadership and their careers, which means they have a lot of experience in strategic life planning.

Vega Subramaniam
We're watching our parents get older. We need to think about this for ourselves — about how we're going to take care of ourselves as we get older, and we started having those conversations with our friends.

Anita Rao
One thing that was really on Vega's mind in those conversations: the challenges she and Mala face as queer, South Asian women, and how the intersection of those identities could affect their end of life, community and care.

Vega Subramaniam
If you look at senior living centers, kind of mainstream senior living centers, there's not a lot of cultural competency, yet people are working on it. And I noticed that older people, when they needed to go into something like assisted living, had to go back into the closet, had to deny decades long relationships, and we were terrified — as out and open as we have been, you know, in our relationship, we really were scared that we would have to go back into the closet or lose our community — if we had to go into assisted living.

We also had to navigate our South Asian American communities because a lot of us who are queer had either been disowned, or who ran from those communities. But as we get older, they are where we grew up. They are our extended family. And so we also had to think about how we were going to renegotiate relationships with family members who we might not have spoken with for years or decades or who disavowed our relationship or didn't accept us.

Anita Rao
Vega and Mala's strategic planning for the future soon crashed head on into big changes in their present. Several years after their life planning weekend, it became clear that both sets of their aging parents were in need of more care and support. At the time, they were living on the West Coast, about as far away as they could be from their East Coast-dwelling parents. Here's Mala.

Mala Nagarajan
Vega and I came over to the East Coast on a trip and we saw that all of them, all of our parents were just struggling. And on the plane trip back, Vega and I decided — we're like: Should we move back to the East Coast? So because of our life planning process, we were able to make that decision pretty quickly and really center our values in the process. And we first moved to about 45 minutes away from my parents, and then the next year, we moved 30 minutes away.

Eventually we moved seven minutes away, and then my dad got sick with prostate cancer: stage four, and COPD: stage four, even though he had never smoked in his life. And he asked us to move in with him — with my parents, and it was a really hard decision. We had to negotiate how we were going to do our living situation, and this is a request from someone who didn't come to our wedding because he didn't think it was natural for us to get married. Each of our parents had different levels of acceptance and I think we kind of won them over by like degreasing the stoves and shoveling their driveways and fixing and setting up their appliances. And it's been really amazing to see the cultural change both in their communities and their conversations — a struggle to think about how to help someone who doesn't have hearing, who can't drive, who has limited mobility.

Anita Rao
Vega and Mala now live across the hall from Mala's mom in a community for folks aged 55 plus. Vega's parents are just a short drive away. Caretaking, on top of their full time jobs, is a lot of work — and it puts a hold on Vega and Mala's ability to plan for their own aging, but they're anxious to get back to it and to their vision: creating a community where they can age in place and be supported physically and emotionally.

Vega Subramaniam
We have started conversations with friends back in the mid 2000s: 2007, 2008 thereabouts, with our queer people of color friends about how we were going to take care of each other, and we had gotten a little bit aways in the journey.

We started looking at neighborhoods — we even drove around looking at potential motels that we could renovate into living units that we could bring friends into. And those conversations remain in that very initial dreaming and scheming phase because we, right now — our lives are basically caregiving and working, and there's no time to breathe. It's a little scary, actually. Because as you know, as the life ahead of me decreases compared to the life behind me, I know what I need to do. We need to get back to those conversations, and we need to get back to not just the conversations, but finding the places and finding the community. Moving to the place of action, and we just don't have space, or time, or energy for that right now.

Anita Rao
I'm curious. So Mala, you described kind of inching closer and closer to your parents, and now you're living in a community for people older than 55. So tell me about what your experience being in that community has illuminated for you about what you want to find moving forward — like what gaps are in that kind of potential community that you want to fill by this other vision that you have?

Mala Nagarajan
That's a great question. It was when we first moved here, I was really surprised that a 55 plus community didn't have accessible doorways. They didn't have handicapped buttons that allowed for people with wheelchairs to come in the trash compactors, and the different — even the amenities didn't have accessible ways to get there. I think for me, the biggest thing is really thinking about aging in place. I think the folks who planned this community didn't necessarily think about that.

Anita Rao
I'm curious to build on that Vega, I mean, are there some values or ways that the community operates that you all have noticed that inform what you would want for a place that you would want to live?

Vega Subramaniam
A couple of the things that I have seen here that seem vital to people's well being are: they take exercise and wellness seriously. So they offer all kinds of classes for wellness and exercise that are meant for aging bodies. They take community seriously, so they offer a class — like people can offer classes on their expertise, so if you're a really good cook, you can offer a cooking class. If you know how to knit, you can offer a knitting class. They have tennis courts, and they play pickleball.

And I really see a lot of people helping each other. Somebody could call it nosy or being snoopy, but everybody knows what everyone else is doing — and so people know if somebody's husband is ill, and so they will step up to help and bring food and make sure they're taken care of. And I really hope that Mala and I can establish something for ourselves that emulates some of those positive characteristics that we find here.

Anita Rao
The community Vega and Mala envision will not come ready made. They're thinking a lot about what's on the to do list, and the things yet unknown.

Vega Subramaniam
We need to decide which of the dreams we want to make happen. One is: We have a close knit group of friends that we've known for decades, and we've talked about buying property together. And then you know, living together in a building or series of tiny homes.

Another is: Buying land and creating a retreat space, or you know, an organic garden in a small cafe — some sort of like income-generating endeavor, so that we can have a space that is affordable, no matter what your income level because we are making income on the land. Each of those things require that we take a serious look at our finances. We get serious about who's in and who's out, and once we have a better sense of what kind of resources we're talking about, and what number of people we're talking about — I don't know, hire somebody?

Anita Rao
Is there someone who does this kind of work out there? I don't know, but if you do, and you're listening to this podcast, please get in touch. And if there's not, maybe that's a place we need some structural change, some change that will provide us with the time, space and resources we need to prepare for growing old.

Mala Nagarajan
Of the things I keep thinking about is our capacity to live and be and work — and the capacity to engage is so expansive. I see my mom at 85 changing the way that she does things. So just how do we help older folks whatever they can live, right? Like, instead of it being an either/or, it's actually fluid — and how do we allow for engagement in different ways? How do we slow things down and allow people to engage in whatever speed they're working in? And I take that into my practice at work. When I'm thinking about workplaces and workplace culture — how do we actually allow people to be fully present and work at speeds that they work?

Vega Subramaniam
There's all kinds of things that are like very policy-oriented, like insurance for home health aides, insurance for preventive care, insurance for long-term, or more affordable long-term health coverage — some sort of benefits for caregivers, so that Mala doesn't have to run herself ragged. But one thing I do want to lift up is the intentional creating of more inter-generational spaces.

In a lot of cultures, around the world, people are naturally in inter-generational spaces — for example, their parents and therefore grandparents moving in to adult children's homes or families living together over lifespans, and other ways that people, young people interact with older people and older people interact with younger people — and I really would love to see more of that and more intentional creating of that.

I have to say that whenever I'm around South Asian LGBTQ folks who are in their, say, teens, 20s, even into early 30s, it's always so gratifying because we recognize how much we have to learn from each other. You know, a lot of younger South Asian queer folks didn't know that Mala and I, and many, many others were around back in the 70s and 80s and 90s — and that we had organizations then, and we had newsletters then, and we had community then, and we made the mistakes then that they're making now. And they're hungry for the history that they're not alone — that they have a legacy that they can build on. And so this is my plea for ways that we can create those inter-generational spaces, so that we can all learn from each other and grow together.

Anita Rao
Before we close, a few other perspectives on living in community.

Barbara
As an elder orphan, I think, someone without much family, and what there is of it, is far away — I need companions on this journey and people who will notice if I'm not on my porch drinking coffee in the morning. Living in co-housing is the first and best solution for me to address the physical aspects of growing more frail. It's not really good for anyone to feel isolated and useless, and here I feel connection and purpose.

Anita Rao
That's Barbara again, who you met earlier. She lives in Village Hearth Co-Housing in Durham. One of her neighbors is Carol, who picked up her life and moved to this community in March of this year.

Carol
As a single person, living alone was not my desire — though I am very much an introvert. So I moved to a co-housing community, 55-plus, also an LGBTQ persons and friends and allies, so that I just don't ever have to worry about being anybody other than who I am. It has not been an easy transition. You give up familiar things and places, and I think it's going to take time, but I have no doubts that what I have done is the best decision for me.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina public radio WUNC — a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org. Now, incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

Kaia Findlay produced the show. Amanda Magnus is our editor. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music. Lindsey Foster Thomas is the director of content.

This show is supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker- and consumer-owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next date pick up — WeaverStreetMarket.CoOp.

And just a note that we are taking next week off from the podcast to be with our families for the holidays, but we're going to be back with you the first week in December to talk about something we know that you need more of: rest.

We are thankful for you all this and every time of year. If you want to show your love back to us, take five minutes and text a friend about us, or post about an episode you love on social media. It means a lot and helps new listeners find the show.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao — taking on the taboo with you.

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