Steven Petrow's Advice On Stupid Things Not to Do When You Get Older
The author’s new book gives ideas on how to age better than the generations before us
When author Steven Petrow was in his 50s and his parents were in their 70s, he began to see them making quite a number of decisions that he thought weren't in their best interests. He started to make notes, which led first to a New York Times column (more on that later) and now a book: "Stupid Things I Won't Do When I Get Old: A Highly Judgmental, Unapologetically Honest Accounting of All the Things Our Elders Are Doing Wrong."
Petrow, now 64, took time to talk with us about his book and what he's learned from writing it. What follows is our interview, edited for length and clarity.
Next Avenue: What did you first notice that your parents were doing that you didn't think was best for them?
Steven Petrow: They were kind of small things at first. My dad had started tripping and then falling over the throw rugs in their house, but my mom loved the throw rugs and she wouldn't pick them up. So, it's like style over substance.
I read that, and I thought, oh my god, pick up the rugs.
The rugs never came up. Then my dad needed physical therapy, but it hurt him. I've had physical therapy, and it does hurt sometimes. But he declined it, and wound up really impacting his mobility.
"I thought I was the only secret snitch, but no, everybody is keeping a list to try to do better for themselves for the next generation."
I was just taking these notes and kind of adding to my list. It got to about 100 items, and I write for The New York Times and The Washington Post, and I thought there's something there. It started off with a column called "Things I Will Do Differently," so a little bit less sass in the title.
I'm talking about these tough issues to talk about; illness, mobility, disability and then eventually death and dying. I was trying to sort of provide a little bit of a guide to talking about them and using humor in real-life circumstances.
So, that column was published. It was on the Most Read list for two weeks, got a lot of attention, and then people started sending me their lists — like two hundred, three hundred lists. Just incredible.
I thought I was the only secret snitch, but no, everybody is keeping a list to try to do better for themselves for the next generation. Nobody was doing it in a mean-spirited way. Some were hysterical in their own ways, and that's how the book came to be, because it seemed like there was an appeal to how we look at these issues of aging and what comes next.
What are some of the most important things you learned that you wanted to pass on to people that perhaps you hadn't thought about before?
The greatest lesson was about empathy, because when I started off keeping my list, I remembered my dad pretty much saying the same thing about his own parents. But as time went by and then after [my parents] both became ill, I came to realize that they were doing as well as they could. I kind of missed out on that part early on, and my heart was much more full for the choices that they've made, but also for the fears they faced.
I tell the story in the book of how we hoped they would go to a continuing care community. My brother took them to one near his house because they were living in the middle of nowhere on a cliff. The community they visited served fish for lunch that day, and my mom said, 'I don't like fish, so no go.' She's a very direct person. So, they said no, but then they said 'we don't want to become a burden to you' — and that sentence is probably on half of the lists that people sent to me.
It was irksome, and in many ways, they did become a burden. A burden that we still loved them -- but dealing with emergencies, health aides that needed to be hired and fired, et cetera.
Two years ago, I decided I don't want to become a burden to my nieces. I was recently divorced, and I needed a plan. So, I went to look at a couple of these continuing care communities and honestly, I had the same level of denial and fear. They were perfectly nice communities. I do eat fish, so that was not a problem. It was shrimp scampi that day.
But also in the dining room, there were able-bodied older people, and then there were older people who had had strokes, were using walkers, and I bailed. I bailed in the middle of the tour. But I sent my deposit check in so I could say I have a Plan B.
It's hard. It's harder than people think. So, you know, I hope that that's a lesson that I have learned also that sometimes we need to step up to the fear and make certain decisions that will be better for us than not, but fear is hard. Denial is harder.
Other countries or ethnicities treat their elders with more respect than in the United States overall. What do you want readers, at least in the States, to come away with?
A couple of things. The first one is ageism is rampant, whether it's discriminatory practices in the workplace or health care or internalized ageism, where we are harsh with each other or with ourselves.
I have friends who send me these memes that they think are funny, but they're mean. I got one last week: his grandma unfriended someone on Facebook, then the image is a phone and she's got her white-out out and she's painting over his name. That just plays to the notion that older people are nincompoops when it comes to technology, which is so untrue.
But when someone in my generation is propagating that, it comes across as this is acceptable to make fun of each other. But it's kind of insidious. And internalized ageism, especially, leads to greater rates of physical disease, mental health diagnosis and a shorter life span.
"Elder is a life phase. It's like being pregnant. It's like being twentysomething. It's another life phase. Being ill, that's hard. That's a disease. They're not the same."
So, first thing is, let's understand how insidious ageism is and the fact that it seems to be one of the last acceptable 'isms' that we can continue to use humor around.
I'd say the second theme within all of this is that being older is very different than being ill, and many people are confused about that. They seem to think they are one and the same.
Elder is a life phase. It's like being pregnant. It's like being twentysomething. It's another life phase. That's great. Being ill, that's hard. That's a disease. They're not the same. We tend to think that they're one and the same.
That sort of self-prophecy comes true. So, these organ recitals, where people over fifty start talking about every ailment they have, ad nauseum — there's just so much wrong with that because we are not our illnesses. We have many more passions and interests than our bodies, and the more we talk in that vein, we're defining ourselves that way.
We make a host of decisions on a daily basis that we don't see as that significant, and they are. We need to retrain ourselves. And I'm going to give you an example that on the face of it seems at best silly, but one of the promises I made was I will not double space after a period [when I'm writing].
People grew up learning to type on a typewriter where you did need to double space, and then in the computer age, you don't. I won't go into the reasons why. I found it a challenge, too, to make that shift, but it's important to recognize that we need to adapt. We need to be flexible, and that technology, rather than being this frightening thing, can enable us to stay connected.
So, now I'm not talking about double spacing, but learning how to use some of the social media platforms as a way to stay connected across generations. It's about retraining your brain and not being stuck in a rut, and it's a challenge. You kind of need to step up to it early and often.
I see this book as really being useful for almost any adult because our brains are being trained from the moment we graduate from college, if not before. So, this notion of resilience and flexibility and adaptation are kind of core to any kind of life practices.
What surprised you from what you learned from all this?
The book is in three sections. Stupid Things I Won't Do Today, Stupid Things I Won't Do Tomorrow and Stupid Things I Won't Do at the End. I was unsure about whether to include that whole last section about the end. It's a smaller section; I didn't want it to overwhelm the rest of the book, because the rest of the book is really an applicability across generations. So, I was kind of worried about that.
The more I wrestled with that section, I think I found ways to bring some humor into those darker topics, or scarier topics, and some human emotion.
And it's important to stay connected.
I randomly will text or call friends and just say I'm thinking about you. How are you?
I do that, too.
And isn't that lovely?
And when people reach out to me that way, it matters, and it's a tiny bit out of our normal zone, but it makes a difference in connection.
And I've also been doing it on Instagram. I take regular pictures. I have two hashtags: #gratitude and #beautyiseverywhere. I think no matter where you are, no matter where you look, you can find something beautiful, maybe even a spectacular sunset. I always dedicate it to a friend.
Is there anything else we haven't covered that you think is important specifically for the readers of Next Avenue to be aware of?
I'd just like to address the theme or the chapter 'I Won't Let Anyone Treat Me with Disrespect.' I think it's so important for people who are fifty-plus to be recognized, to be lauded for their experience, their accomplishments, their generosity of heart and not to allow themselves to be put down or to be isolated.
And oftentimes that means standing up for yourself, finding your voice, expressing it. It's a challenge.
All of these are challenges. It makes a such difference as to how we feel about ourselves, and then how we will be seen by loved ones, by community members.
Also, you get to a certain point [where you say] I'm not taking any more crap.