Things Not to Do When You Get Older

Upon turning 50, Steven Petrow, an award-winning journalist and author best known for his articles in the Washington Post and New York Times, started a new project. Inspired by his 70-something-year-old parents, he began assembling a list of “things I won’t do when I get old.” Although he was very close with his parents and meant no offense toward them, he often saw them do things that he would consider doing differently as he got older, and he jotted them all down.

When the list, which kept growing longer and longer, got to about 100 items, he thought to himself that perhaps there’s something there. He saw recurring themes, including tough issues such as illness, decreasing mobility, disability, and then eventually death and dying. At the age of 64, Petrow published the list in his book, “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old.” The book is divided into 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.”

Petrow’s hope was to provide a guide to talking about things that go along with getting older and using humor in real-life circumstances. He also hoped that the list would “address the fears, frustrations, and stereotypes that accompany aging.”

What’s on the List?

Petrow calls his list “a highly judgmental, and super-secret, accounting of all the things I thought my parents were doing wrong.” For instance, his dad lied about taking his meds and refused to get a hearing aid, telling others to “up their audio.” His mom smoked behind his back (she thought) until the day she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She drove terrifyingly and was stubborn about giving up her license, for fear of losing her independence. For Petrow, although it was easy to call them out, he recognized over and over just how hard it is to become feeble, sick, and increasingly absent-minded, or worse.

As he accumulated the many pages of dos and don’ts, Petrow fretted about exactly when he’d be old enough to start following his own advice. At 64, he doesn’t feel ready yet to start taking his own advice. According to Petrow, “I’m still working on building my list, not implementing it.”

Stubbornness and Giving Up Independence

On his list, Petrow discussed his parents’ stubbornness and his frustration with it. When it comes to his mother’s driving, for instance, “a growing number of fender benders, and worse didn’t faze her, and she would not listen to any talk of her fading ability behind the wheel.” In desperation, he reported his mother to the DMV, and they called her in for a road test. She failed it, and her license was revoked. It humiliated her and tormented Petrow. Here’s how it appeared in his book:

“If my driving capability is questioned, I will not reject the comment out of hand because I am afraid of losing my independence. I hope there will be self-driving cars by then. If nothing else works, I hope someone will turn me in.”

Increasing Physical Frailty

Petrow’s biggest worry as he watched his parents grow old was their increasing physical frailty. He recalled his father pointing out the consequences of his own mother’s pride in refusing a cane or walker: At age 84, Petrow’s grandmother fell while riding the New York City subway alone, and that fall led, over the months that followed, to her death. Yet, after hundreds of falls, none of which persuaded him to accept help or use a walker, Petrow’s father, at 87, fell and broke four ribs. Petrow asked himself “will my self-awareness triumph over my own (apparently genetic) stubbornness? ”So on his list he included what he told his dad time and again:

“I’ll try to remember that the best way to stay independent is to accept smaller degrees of dependence or assistance. I’ll use a walker rather than fall and break bones.”


For years, his father blamed the family dog for his “accidents.” Petrow hopes that if he becomes incontinent one day like his father, maybe he’ll grow in his self-acceptance so that he won’t view incontinence as humiliation. So, he wrote:

“I will not blame the family dog on my lap for my incontinence. I will choose the humiliation of wearing adult diapers over the humiliation of wetting my bed and having someone else clean the sheets.”

Take Care of Yourself

Petrow also wants to maintain some style as he gets older. Right until the end, his mother continued to have her hair styled and colored and her manicured nails painted red. He wrote:

“If I can’t take care of my personal grooming any more, I will find help. If I don’t care about my personal grooming any more, I will find different help.  At the very least I want to be clean — and smell fresh, like Mom — so people sit by me and hold my hand.”

Control Your Anger

Petrow’s list also acknowledges his quickness to anger, which is a trait he shares with both parents. A year before his mother died, her aide repeatedly asked her to do some post-surgical breathing exercises prescribed by the oncologist but that she hated doing because they were challenging. One afternoon, in deep frustration, she lashed out at the aide using profane language. Onto his list went:

“If I’m hurt or angry by what’s happening to me or my body, I will do my best not to take it out on those who are closest to me.”

“I will be kind.”

“I will apologize.”

As Petrow is growing older himself, he continues to pay attention and maintain his list. Yet he remains mindful of what one friend told him: “The important thing is to remember no matter how much we tell ourselves we won’t be like our parents, no matter how hard and fast we run in the other direction, we become them.”

Petrow came across something interesting in his father’s papers after he published his book. His grandmother, the one who fell on the subway because she refused to use a cane, once made a similar list. Hers included:

  1. Do not fall.
  2. Work on controlling forgetfulness.
  3. Think before you speak.
  4. Eat moderately and no rich desserts.
  5. Do the best you can. Learn by your errors.

Petrow hopes to learn from his grandmother’s errors, and those of his parents, and avoid making too many of his own. He mostly hopes to be able to judge when to stop adding to the list and when to start following his own advice.

Learn from Your Loved Ones. Be Sure to Plan for Your Future.

As you are navigating getting older and what goes along with it, it is also a good idea to plan for your future and for your loved ones. Our firm is dedicated to helping protect seniors by preserving dignity, quality of life, and financial security. If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please call us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Elder Law Attorney Fairfax: 703-691-1888

Elder Law Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435

Elder Law Attorney Rockville: 301-519-8041

Elder Law Attorney DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.