Watching Biden was ‘painful’ for some Americans with aging family members

President Biden shuffled onto the debate stage, whispering, muttering and pausing repeatedly. When he wasn’t speaking, he stood slightly hunched, his mouth sometimes open and his eyes flickering between apparent confusion and recognition. When his stagnant 90-minute debate debut was over, his wife took him by the hand and gently guided him off the stage.

Biden’s debate performance a week and a half ago caused a wave of political fear and turmoil within the Democratic Party, raising questions about whether he could defeat Trump in November. There were calls for him to drop out of the race.

But in some households across the country, it also raised more existential questions, with Biden, 81, unwittingly becoming the archetype of many families’ aging relatives — a poignant reminder of the inherent fragility of the human condition and, for many who watched it, a heartbreaking scene of a man at the end of his life.

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

For Fries, who watched her father Harold C. Fries — a World War II veteran who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart — decline into his 70s before his death in 1997, the debate was also “kind of a trigger to watch,” she said.

She recalled imagining her father “sitting at the bottom of a cliff, trying to work his way back up” and said she saw similarities with Biden during the debate.

“That’s what makes it so painful to see this drama in the news, because you know there’s no going back,” said Fries, a Democrat who said she will vote for Biden if he remains the Democratic nominee but would prefer a ticket with California Gov. Gavin Newsom at the top and Vice President Harris as his No. 2. “It’s painful to see someone who can’t talk the way he did four years ago, or the way he did six months ago, because it’s a revelation.”

In the days since the debate, the White House and Biden’s campaign have worked to contain the fallout. In some quarters, anger that Biden and his insular team let him stumble into this situation just four months before Election Day has eclipsed any genuine sympathy.

But the fact that Biden is grappling with the indignities of aging on the biggest stage possible has provoked an almost involuntary reaction from some people who have watched their beloved parent or grandparent slow, 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 being, as someone who should not have been put in that position.”

Moelter, a Democrat who voted for Biden in 2020, said she will vote for him again this year, though she “frankly” wishes he would step aside so Democrats could choose another candidate.

But she also wondered why it seemed his family hadn’t had a difficult conversation with him about his declining health — a kind of political intervention along the lines of: We’ve got to take Daddy’s car keys away.

“His family has had to see the change in him over the last four years,” she said. “I don’t understand why they keep pushing him in this direction. It’s a little demeaning for him to be seen this way, and I don’t mean that politically — I just mean that as an older 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 will probably vote for Trump — and they were sympathetic. One guy I talked to is a lifelong Republican, a good friend of mine, and he said, ‘You know, one of my parents had Alzheimer’s, the other had dementia, it’s sad to see,'” Ryan said.

Ryan added that even as Biden shows clear signs of aging, he still has his most important political superpower: “Joe Biden has always been able to reach through and connect with people emotionally, and people have really felt bad about that and felt connected because of it.”

During Tuesday’s White House briefing, New York Times reporter Michael Shear appeared to acknowledge the deeply personal implications of Biden’s debate performance, wondering aloud to press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre whether Biden’s poor performance was comparable to “the way we look at our elderly parents and grandparents.”

“You visit them maybe once a year, and you see troubling signs because you don’t live in the same city, maybe,” 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?”

“Should we put them in a ho-,” he continued, before pausing, as if the idea of ​​moving an elderly parent into a nursing home was too difficult to contemplate. “And this is kind of an American version of that.”

“I hear you,” Jean-Pierre said, before explaining that this is why Biden undergoes regular medical check-ups.

In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Friday, Biden said he was feeling unwell during the debate and was exhausted. He said he was undergoing tests afterward as part of an effort to convince Democrats he was still fit to run for reelection. But Biden was adamant that he did not need a cognitive test and appeared coy when asked whether he would undergo an independent medical evaluation.

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

Still, some Democrats remain concerned about Biden’s health, especially a small group who are considering not running for office.

Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-N.C.), who is running for North Carolina attorney general, described the paralyzed mood in Washington — the city where Biden has served for more than five decades — in a fundraising email after the debate.

Jackson, a newcomer to Congress, wrote that he doesn’t know Biden personally, but “some members of the House do, and when I spoke to them the next morning, it wasn’t about politics — this was about a friend of theirs. They processed what they saw differently, just because they’d known him so long.”

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

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

In a statement, Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said: “President Biden is bringing his popular vision for moving this country forward to the American people and the voters who will decide this election. … We believe the contrast [with Trump] and a binary choice that will matter and determine victory in November.”

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

“The challenge of Biden’s age has always been that everyone has parents and grandparents, which sets the bar high for someone who wants to prove that they’re ready for the toughest job in the world,” Pfeiffer said.

The repeatedly aired clip of Biden’s wife, first lady Jill Biden, escorting him off the debate stage angered Bev Overly, a 67-year-old Republican voter in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when she saw it again on the news Wednesday night. She imagined her mother — who had relied on her during her terminal care — and how upset she would be if she were caught waddling on national television.

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

“The more I thought about it, the angrier I got,” Overly continued, musing sadly that Biden’s family’s failure to intervene almost amounted to “elder abuse.”

After the debate, Fries also questioned why Biden’s family didn’t do more to protect him from public humiliation, and in an email she wrote to Dr. Jason Karlawish, co-director of the Penn Memory Center — where she has contributed to publications and participated in a genetic study — she described the anguish when her family was forced to tell her father, the World War II veteran, “to turn over his car keys.”

“Nobody said This man has been riding for almost 60 years and we stick with him, she wrote.When the process that plagued him made it impossible for him to stay in his home, no one said But he’s such a good person. He was indeed a good person, but he did not belong behind the wheel, and his rapid decline in the last year of his illness required clinical care.”

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

“You can imagine a family member saying, ‘This reminded me of when we got the paperwork to sell the house so we could move mom into the permanent retirement community. And boy, mom really struggled with all that paperwork,’” he said.

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

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

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

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