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  /  Editor's Pick   /  Watching Biden, many see the heartbreaking indignities of aging

Watching Biden, many see the heartbreaking indignities of aging

President Biden shuffled onto the debate stage. He whispered, mumbled and repeatedly trailed off. When he wasn’t speaking, he stood slightly stooped, his mouth at times agape and his eyes flickering between apparent confusion and recognition. When his halting 90-minute debate debut was over, his wife took him by the hand, escorting him gingerly offstage.

Biden’s debate performance a week and a half ago set off a swirl of political angst and upheaval in the Democratic Party, prompting questions about whether he is up to the task of defeating Trump in November and calls for him to drop out of the race.

But in some homes across the country, it also prompted more existential questions, with Biden, 81, becoming the unwitting archetype of many families’ aging relatives — a poignant reminder of the inherent fragility of the human condition and, for many watching, a heartbreaking tableau of a man in the sunset of his life.

Deborah Fries, 76, a retired state public information officer who lives in Philadelphia, said she began watching the debate but turned it off after just eight minutes: “I couldn’t bear to watch it,” she said.

For Fries, who watched her father, Harold C. Fries — a World War II veteran with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart — decline in his 70s before passing away in 1997, the debate also proved “kind of triggering for me to watch,” she said.

She remembers imagining her father “at the bottom of a cliff trying to claw his way back up” and said she saw similarities with Biden at the debate.

“That’s what makes watching this drama unfolding in the news so wrenching, because you know there’s not a way back up,” said Fries, a Democrat who said she’ll vote for Biden if he remains the Democratic nominee but would prefer a ticket featuring California Gov. Gavin Newsom at the top and Vice President Harris as his No. 2. “To watch someone unable to speak as they have spoken four years ago, or as they had spoken six months ago, it’s wrenching because it’s a reveal.”

In the days since the debate, the Biden White House and campaign have worked to contain the fallout. In some corners, the fury that Biden and his insular team allowed him to stumble into this situation just four months from Election Day has overshadowed any genuine sympathy.

But watching Biden grapple with the indignities of aging on the largest possible stage has conjured an almost involuntary response from some people who have witnessed a beloved parent or grandparent slow down, falter and decline.

“Painful and sad — those were my two words,” said Jean Moelter, 63, a retired high school English teacher from River Falls, Wis. “I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry as a human, as someone who shouldn’t have been put in that position.”

Moelter, a Democrat who voted for Biden in 2020, said that she will vote for him again this year, though “truth be told, yes,” she does wish he would step aside to allow Democrats to choose a different nominee.

But she also wondered why it appears his family hasn’t had a tough conversation with him about his declining health — a sort of we-need-to-take-away-Dad’s-car-keys political intervention.

“His family has had to have seen the change in him over the last four years,” she said. “I don’t understand why they would continue to push him in this direction. It’s kind of humiliating for him to be seen this way, and I don’t mean that politically — I just mean that as an elderly person in that situation.”

For Tim Ryan, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio, “The first emotion was heartbreak.”

“And I’ve talked to Republicans — and Republicans who vote Republican and probably will vote for Trump — and they had sympathy. One guy I talked to is a lifelong Republican, a good friend of mine, and he said, ‘You know, my one parent had Alzheimer’s, the other had dementia, it’s sad to watch,’” Ryan said.

Ryan added that, even now, as Biden seems to exhibit clear signs of aging, the president still retains his chief political superpower: “Joe Biden has always been able to cut through and connect with people emotionally, and people really felt bad and connected with that.”

In the White House briefing on Tuesday, New York Times reporter Michael Shear seemed to confront the deeply personal implications of Biden’s debate performance, wondering aloud to press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre if Biden’s poor showing was akin to “the way we look at our elderly parents and grandparents.”

“You maybe visit them once a year, and you see troubling signs because you don’t live in the same city, perhaps,” he began, adding that you then wonder, “Where are they going to be in a year? Where are they going to be in two years?

“Do we need to put them in a ho—” he continued, before trailing off, as if the idea of moving an elderly parent to a nursing home was too difficult to contemplate. “And this is sort of the American people’s version of that.”

“I hear you,” Jean-Pierre said, before explaining that’s why Biden undergoes regular medical examinations.

In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Friday, Biden said he wasn’t feeling well at the debate and was exhausted. He said he got a checkup afterward, part of an effort to reassure Democrats that he was still fit for reelection. But Biden was adamant he didn’t need a cognitive test and seemed to demure when asked if he would go through an independent medical assessment.

“I have a cognitive test every single day,” he told Stephanopoulos.

Still, some Democrats remain concerned about Biden’s health, especially a steady trickle who have begun considering the idea of a Biden-less ticket.

Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-N.C.), who is running for North Carolina attorney general, described the petrified mood in Washington — the city in which Biden has served for over five decades — in a fundraising email following the debate.

Jackson, a freshman congressman, wrote that while he doesn’t know Biden personally, “some members of the House do, and in speaking with them that next morning it hadn’t become about politics yet — this was about a friend of theirs. They were processing what they saw in a different way, simply because of how long they’ve known him.”

Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to former president Barack Obama, described the debate as watching “your worst nightmare happening in real-time, and you also could see him recognizing it as it was happening.”

“Both from a political perspective of trying to beat Donald Trump and also as someone you have great admiration for, it was just a heartbreaking experience,” he said.

In a statement, Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz said “President Biden is taking his popular vision to move this country forward to the American people and the voters who will decide this election. … Our view is that it is the contrast [with Trump] and binary choice that will matter and determine victory this November.”

Even many who don’t know Biden personally said they recognize some familiarity with the white-haired, slow-moving figure — underscoring the universality of aging and the fragility that often accompanies the process. “If he were my father…” or “If he were my grandfather…” have become more common refrains for voters sharing their thoughts about Biden.

“The challenge of Biden’s age the whole time has been that everyone has parents and grandparents, which created a high bar for someone to cross to prove their readiness for the hardest job in the world,” Pfeiffer said.

The repeatedly aired clip of Biden’s wife, first lady Jill Biden, guiding him off the debate stage made Bev Overly, a 67-year-old Republican voter in Bethlehem, Pa., mad when she watched it again Wednesday night on the news. She imagined her mother — who had relied on her during end-of-life care — and how upset she would be if she was caught lumbering on national television.

“When you see it on the news, you see it shown like a circus, [like] come see the sideshow,” said Overly, who plans to vote for Trump.

“The more I thought about it, the more angry I got,” Overly continued, musing, in sadness, that Biden’s family not intervening almost seemed like “elder abuse.”

Following the debate, Fries also wondered why Biden’s family wasn’t doing more to protect him from public humiliation, and in an email she wrote to Jason Karlawish, co-director of the Penn Memory Center — where she has contributed to its publications and as a participant in a genetic study — she described the angst of when her family was forced to tell her father, the World War II veteran, that “he had to give up his car keys.”

“No one said this man has driven for almost 60 years and we are sticking by him,” she wrote. “When the process that was taking him made it impossible for him to remain in his home, No one said But he is such a good man. Indeed, he was a good man, but he didn’t belong behind the wheel, and his quick decline in the last year of his illness required in-patient care.”

Karlawish, who is also a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said a debate inherently tests an individual’s cognitive abilities — “attention, concentration, multitasking, working memory, language.”

“So you can imagine a family member saying, ‘This reminded me of when we got the paperwork for the sale of the house so we could move Mom to the continuing retirement community and, boy, Mom really struggled with all the paperwork,’” he said.

Many older voters have also compared their own limitations to ones the president might have.

Robert Masyaba, a 70-year-old independent voter in Whitehall, Pa., pointed out how he limped slightly as he returned his shopping cart in a Weis grocery store parking lot. His bad knee doesn’t slow him down much, but he wasn’t sure he could take the country’s most powerful job with his imperfect memory.

“I’m not as quick as I used to be mentally,” said Masyaba, who still plans on voting for Biden. “And I’m not even 81. I can imagine what I’ll be like in 11 years.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post