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An Age of Decision

7th February 2020

Old couples frequently experience friction over where to live and travel and how to spend money.

By Stephen Miller, author Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers From Walt Whitman to Teju Cole

The Wall Street Journal | Opinion / Commentary / January 8, 2020

The title character in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has trouble making decisions: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” He laments that “I grow old”—but at least he isn’t married. Many older couples face friction over difficult decisions: where to live, where to go, what to throw out, how to spend money, what information to share.

9780823274253 Walking Ny Miller
Published by Fordham University Press under the Empire State Editions (ESE)imprint.

Where to live is the major decision retirees face. Not all retirees want to live in Florida in a house without stairs. My wife, Eva, and I, in our late 70s, are happy remaining in Northern Virginia, not far from our older daughter’s family. But Eva wants to move from our townhouse to an apartment within walking distance of a supermarket to avoid having to drive. I want to stay put.

Where to go? Eva and I don’t argue about this, but we know several couples who have major disagreements about traveling. One friend dislikes it altogether, so his wife goes on trips with female friends while he stays home and minds the dog.

What to throw away (or give away) is a big problem. I’ve parted with cartons of books, but I’m always buying more. Eva persuaded me to dispense with two coffee-makers I rarely used. I’ve given away many items of clothing. Decluttering always requires hundreds of decisions. Friends of ours hired a company to do it for them when they moved to a smaller apartment in a retirement community.

What should we spend money on, since we’re on a fixed income? I’d like a second car, but Eva persuaded me we could manage with one. Should we renovate the bathrooms? I agreed to this because she felt strongly about it. Should we get travel insurance when we book a trip six months ahead? Eva said we should, so I (reluctantly) bought travel insurance for a coming European trip. Should we have long-term health-care insurance? We made that decision in middle age. Twenty years ago she bought it. I didn’t.

There should be no indecision about sharing financial information, but I know of several instances in which a husband died or became demented without apprising his wife of their savings and investments—or even the password to his computer.

It’s fun to dream of saying goodbye to age-related decision-making and just taking off, as Tennyson’s Ulysses did, ditching his family in Ithaca so he could “strive, seek, and find, and not . . . yield.” But Tennyson wrote “Ulysses” when he was 24. What did he know about old age? You can strive and seek to your heart’s content, but at some point you have to yield to reality.

I know a couple in their mid-90s who used to go hiking in Switzerland every summer. Last year the wife said she didn’t want to do it anymore. She yielded to old age, but her husband didn’t. Although he walks with a cane, last summer he went hiking in Switzerland again—this time with their 65-year-old daughter.

Mr. Miller is author of “Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers From Walt Whitman to Teju Cole.”