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Before acting hastily, try help

My dad and his wife, both around 80, have a plaque on their kitchen wall that says, "Old Age Is Not For Sissies."

It's great that they keep a sense of humor, especially considering that every other day some doctor is sticking something in them. They have trouble seeing and hearing, they fear falling and nearly every night the TV news convinces them that the country has lost its moral focus.

I worry about them, especially when Dad talks of the "mixed blessing." Five years ago my mother, then 67, was seemingly healthy one minute and dead the next from a massive heart attack. Dad, though still terribly lonely for her, seems more comforted each day that she passed so suddenly; that she was not subjected to the indignities that come with old age.

Though I'm a relative youngster, I have lived long enough now to understand just how fast 10 years turns into 20 and 20 into 30. My kids have grown faster than weeds. Last week my optometrist told me I need bifocals, for crying out loud.

Old age doesn't seem so far off anymore. How will I handle things when I'm 80, assuming this newspaper business doesn't drive me to an earlier grave?

There is a certain longing to live the American Dream of retirement _ the one that has me and my bride hopping in the RV and setting off on adventures that require no schedules. So many people who land in these parts are in search of that dream. After 50 years of working in Cleveland, that Florida sunshine and sea breeze can be intoxicating. What a life _ leisurely breakfasts, a dip in the pool, card games with friends, maybe an afternoon nap.

But for so many, the American Dream turns into the American Nightmare. Age turns one partner into a dependent, the other into a caregiver. The physical dilemma is exacerbated by the fear that the money will run out before death comes.

I realize mornings are bad enough without some editor singing the blues. But my purpose is to offer some understanding to a segment of our population; to folks like Ralph and Bernice Riley of Land O'Lakes. Last week, Ralph, at age 79 frail and ill, called 911 to say he had just shot and killed his 74-year-old wife to free her from the agony of Alzheimer's. He then killed himself. It was a story strikingly and disturbingly familiar.

The Rileys, by all accounts, were nice people. He apparently made the decision that death is better than a life of pain and suffering, and far be it from me to offer any judgment of that.

But my sense is that there are others in their situation who might still salvage some joy of living were they able to access counseling and respite. There is plenty of such help, free of charge, if people are willing to search for it, or if their friends are able to recognize warnings and pass on the numbers.

Help is available through the Alzheimer's Association of West Central Florida, serving Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. Its number, toll free, is (800) 841-6669.

The depression brought by failing health and the fear of destitution makes it almost certain that we will read more sad stories like that of the Rileys. The plaque on my father's kitchen wall bears a lot of truth. But as long as there is help available, we have a moral responsibility to make sure that those who need it are at least aware of where to go to get it.

Bill Stevens is bureau chief of the North Suncoast editions of the Times.

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