Monday, October 1, 2012

Aging as Gracefully as Possible

In her waning years, my wife’s grandmother, Omi, would often say, “It’s no fun to grow old.” This was a woman who, until her middle 80s, worked as an inspector in the garment district. She would put on mostly black clothing and her black “old lady” shoes and take the subway downtown every day. On her way back home, she would stop on 181st Street to buy bargain-priced fruit and vegetables, the type that had only about a day’s shelf life left.

Her daughter, my wife’s mother, lived until she was 93 and was strong and independent and living on her own until the day she literally dropped dead while walking to our car after a birthday celebration for my daughter. These women taught us how to grow old gracefully, or as gracefully as possible. I hope we can follow their lessons.

Audrey's mom on her 91st birthday, alone

and with Audrey

This weekend, we had more occasion to think about the aging process, for several good reasons and a few not-so-good ones. We traveled to Washington for a surprise 60th birthday for our cousin Paula. It was a wonderful party and a big surprise. Paula moves in several different professional and social circles, all of which were well represented at the birthday, along with many of us family members. We ate and talked, touched base with cousins and old and new friends, and watched an endless loop of slides showing Paula and her children growing from their infancy to adulthood. Sure we complained about our aging knees and backs, but mostly we were celebrating growing older.

The birthday party was an interesting counterpoint to the discussion we had earlier that afternoon. The trip to Washington was also an opportunity for us to reunite with Audrey’s former classmate and close friend Terry and her husband Tom. Both are now retired after many years working for the federal government (FEMA in Terry’s case, and the Smithsonian Library in Tom’s case). They are currently going through a lot of stress as Terry’s mother—widowed in the past year after more than 65 years of marriage—goes through a terrible period of aging. Her hip is dislocated and cannot be repaired because she is too frail for any operation. She also recently fell and broke her wrist. Her eyesight is poor, and her mobility is pretty awkward. All of which means that Terry and her sister Nancy need to tend to their mother daily and even several times daily. Tending involves a lot of personal cleaning that, I am sure, is embarrassing to both the giver and the givee. They are being forced to confront a decision that more and more families face as our nation ages—how to provide the best care for an elderly parent. In some cases, this means looking outside the family for help.

Audrey and I have been very lucky on this front. As I noted above, Audrey’s mother went out the way she always wished. She was healthy until almost her final day, and she died without suffering and with her family nearby. My mother, who is approaching her 93rd birthday, has had some health issues in the past few years involving poor blood circulation and declining eyesight. Circumstances forced her to move temporarily and then permanently into an assisted living facility about nine months ago.

Luckily for the aged and for their family members, assisted living facilities today bear little resemblance to the nursing homes we dreaded in past generations (in part, because today’s elderly seem, thankfully, not as old as old people used to be.) This place, which was built and is run by the wife of our Rabbi in Savannah, is light and cheerful, and the staff seem just as cheerful and caring. My mother has the inclination and the facilities (as well as the facility) to cook some meals for herself, principally breakfast. In this way, she can get up when she wants each day and dine in the close company of her cousin and next-door neighbor Sara. The two of them can also avoid the community dining hall for at least one meal a day. While Sara doesn’t complain too much about the food, my mother does. They serve chicken about 17 times a week, she recently noted, and how can anyone screw up rice so badly!

The food is not her biggest complaint. Her real issue is with the bathroom floor tile in her room that she refuses to believe was installed just before she moved in. “It is filthy,” she insists and often asks (demands) that the cleaning crew mop it a second or third time. When we point out that her eyesight is not too good, she notes that it s good enough to spot the dirt hiding in plain sight in the corners of the room. “I want them to put in a rug over the floor,” she recently announced. “I’ve always had rugs in my bathroom, and this floor belongs in a barn!”

When I told this story to my cousin Richard at the birthday party we attended Saturday night, he said, “It’s good to see that Aunt Bea is still herself.”

My mom with Brett and Amanda

Cooking a last batch of jelly in her old house
I certainly hope that Audrey and I, too, will still be ourselves later in life. Though Audrey might hope for me to make a few needed changes by then. I’m sure she is making a list of those changes and will be only too happy to share them with me.

So this was a weekend for looking backward with joy and forward with a little trepidation. If may not be good to grow old, but it is fine to age with as much grace as possible. That’s my resolution for the New Year.

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