Dang Independent Old People

Mom in North Dakota, Sept. 2010

Mom in North Dakota, Sept. 2010

Mom’s almost 90. She’s bright, independent and social. She’s also frail and tiny. On the rare occasion she goes out in the evening, she lets me know ahead of time. This is because everyone, from local family to relatives from back east, will call me worrying if they can’t reach her after dark.

So when I called around five on Sunday night and she didn’t answer, I figured she was indisposed and would call back. She didn’t. An hour later, she didn’t answer either her cell or landline, so I drove over to her house (four blocks away). Her windows were dark but the porch light was on. I figured she went somewhere with her friends and forgot to tip us off.

Over the next couple hours, I phoned a few more times, and then let my sister know. Karen was concerned. “Have you gone inside her house?” she asked. Feeling like a jerk, I let myself in and checked every room and closet. The car was home, so I checked inside that, too. Looking out the patio slider, I was grateful to note she was not lying in a crumpled heap outside, and in fact, the door was locked, further evidence she’d gone out. As I drove back home, I noted a Christmas program going on at the Lodge, which is the clubhouse for our 55+ community. Probably she was inside, I told Karen.

It was unlike Mom not to keep us posted. She’s very responsible and thoughtful. Over the next few hours, Karen and I called and left a few more messages. Nothing.

Pretty soon it was 9:30, and I called Karen back. “What are we going to do if she hasn’t turned up by 10 when the Lodge closes?” I asked. Karen said, “Why don’t you go inside and see if she’s there?” Smart, but risky: if I showed up at the ballroom, Mom would think something horrible had happened to a family member. Then, when I told her why I was there, she’d be embarrassed in front of her friends.

But maybe I could sneak in, see if she was there, and split, undetected. I put my bra back on, as well as some decent slacks and a dab of lipstick. It was now 9:45. At the Lodge, I parked in front and headed toward the ballroom.

Great timing. The party was ending and a crowd flowed toward me. There she was: the shortest person in a sea of elders, her auburn hair barely visible over someone’s shoulder. I fled to the car, leapt in, and drove down one of the parking aisles, where I shut off the lights and waited to make sure it was her. It was dark, but her walk is distinctive after that broken leg of three years ago, and she has a slight hunch from osteoporosis. Then I saw the glint of her cane, and knew I could relax.

I called Karen. “Found her!” I said, laughing at my sneakiness, all for the purpose of ensuring Mom’s safety without her feeling impeded. Karen asked, “What is she doing now?” Suddenly angry, I said, “She’s crossing the parking lot with her old biddy friends!” I was mad with relief. Then I got the idea to race over to her house and watch to make sure she got in okay. I parked on her street, stalking her again, feeling like an inept spy.

She never showed.

I drove around back, thinking she might have gone in through the garage. Nope. I circled her neighborhood for a few fruitless minutes, but assumed she went over to a friend’s house for a snack. I drove home, mumbling and cursing to myself. And there she was, in the back seat of her friend’s little car. They were on my street, looking at Christmas lights. I managed to get inside my garage undetected.

It was after ten. I went to bed. “She okay?” mumbled Bill from under the covers. “Fine. She’s out partying.” It was, after all, my fault and my success that Mom had come to this. I was the one who lobbied hard for her to move to my community. “You’ll have friends,” I’d said. “There are always activities at the Lodge. You’ll never be bored or lonely.” Now, three years after moving away from her beloved home in the high desert, she was thriving, independent, and social.

And her kids were freaking out, acting like they were the parents.

The next day, she was slightly defensive. “I figured you wouldn’t call,” was her argument, but we both know that’s a load of hooey. I said I was glad she had friends and a social life, and that we kids put her through more than this when we were teenagers. We laughed and changed the subject. She’ll never know how upset I was. If my elderly, fragile mother is capable of independence and self-determination, and has all her marbles, I’ll stay out of her way.

Even if she does drive me apeshit.

You Can Take the Day Off

You’ve been reading some very heavy posts lately, and I don’t want to wear out my welcome. So I’m giving you the day off. Thanks for visiting with me every Friday. I love our discussions, but now it’s time to take a break.

Before you go, though, here are some suggestions from Dr. Daniel Amen (Change Your Brain, Change Your Life). These are excerpted from “A Summary of Ways to Optimize Brain Function and Break Bad Brain Habits.”

  1. Spend time with positive uplifting people. Spend time with people you want to be like. (We tend to become like the people with whom we hang out.)
  2. Surround yourself with delightful fragrances and aromas. (The sense of smell bypasses analysis by the cerebral cortex and goes directly to the deep limbic area of the brain, producing feelings and emotions.)
  3. Exercise, learn diaphragmatic breathing, and meditate on a daily basis (to calm the anxiety centers of the brain).
  4. Develop clear goals for your life and reaffirm them every day.
  5. Sing, hum, listen to uplifting music, and move in rhythm as often as possible.

Now, go play. See you next Friday.

By Chris McClave, via Wikimedia Commons

By Chris McClave, via Wikimedia Commons

Old Age Better Than I Ever Expected

Ronni Bennett

Ronni Bennett

I never expected to feel as alive and vibrant and spirited and vital as I do at this time of my life.

These are the words with which my friend, elder blogger Ronni Bennett of Time Goes By, began a recent post. It seemed so powerful I asked if I could reproduce it for Any Shiny Thing. The following words are Ronni’s. Enjoy.

“There is little if anything in our culture that would lead me to believe I would feel this good about being an old woman. The media relate to old age almost entirely via health, poor health – and mostly about dementia.

“There are more news and feature stories about Alzheimer’s, for which no prevention or treatment exists, than reports on all other elder health issues combined.

“The New York Times publishes what is now a long-standing, daily blog about and for elders titled The New Old Age. Day in and day out over several years now, it is exclusively about being sick or frail or demented or all three at once as though there are no other states of health in “the new old age.”

“Someone ought to tell The Times that 80 percent of old people live independently until they die.

“Then there are the politicians. Elders are a big topic for them because we are more frequent voters than younger people and our numbers are ballooning.

“But the pols see us exclusively in economic terms, wringing their hands over how expensive we are, a bunch of greedy geezers who they would rather starve than allow a Social Security cost-of-living increase.

“Is it any wonder nobody likes old people?

“The only positive words about us involve freaks who jump out of airplanes at age 85, reported by the media either as a joke or as an object lesson to all other old folks to get off our duffs and climb Mt. Everest.

“As regular readers know, I think about these things a lot and frequently rail against them…

But that doesn’t stop me from being amazed at how good old age feels. This is the most interesting time of life I have known.

“It seems to happen when I’m not paying attention that a lot of former imperatives fall away, making life easier and far less fraught with shoulds.

I am done improving myself. Self-help be damned. I am what I am and so I shall remain.

“My ambitions these days are about how I might be able to contribute to my community and not the next better, higher-paying job. I’m not competing for work or recognition or awards anymore and that takes off a load.

“My concern about myself has shrunk to little more than a daily mental checklist on well-being rather than how I compare with others. I have less to prove to them and to myself.

“I’ve almost learned that there are good days and bad days, good and bad moods, and that’s all right. Each is as much a part of living as the other.

“And, as I’ve mentioned here before, I have lost my younger sense of urgency, the need to do, do, do. I still find it odd that as my days dwindle down, I more frequently say, “I’ll get to it tomorrow.”

“I still don’t understand that but it sure feels good and for a bonus, I suspect it helps keep my blood pressure in check.

“There is time now, finally, to be. Time to follow my interests and instincts, to investigate those avenues – internal and external – I was too busy for in the past. Or not. I get to choose and the freedom I’ve arrived at to do so thrills me.

“Whatever the rest of the world thinks about being old, from my vantage point of 72, it is unexpectedly better and more exciting than I ever guessed it could be.”

Lynne again: Are you surprised to find yourself happy at an age when we expected to be bummed out?

Elder Wisdom Needed

I humiliated myself, but it wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of my elders, who play things so close to the vest.

One day when I was in my mid-fifties, I was having lunch with friends who are twenty years older. We were discussing a very elderly couple in our writing group. The husband was 90, the wife 85. They still wrote and published, and were incredibly vibrant. “They probably still have sex!” I said.

My friends were appalled. “Well, why wouldn’t they?” one asked.

But how was I to know? Who talks about the intimate details of life in the oldest years?

Okay, now I get the sex thing, but here’s what I really want to know: how do very senior peeps deal with mortality? I apologize for sounding stupid; yes, I DO in fact realize that I, at 58, could go any minute. I’ve almost “gone” three times already (1 car accident at 17, and 2 surgeries later in life). But I want to know how to deal, when I get to be eighty-plus. Getting very old must be existentially challenging. One loss after another, one medical scare after another. How do you manage it emotionally?

We just learned that my uncle, who is 85 and has Parkinsons’, has to go live in an elder care facility. To quote the renowned geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas, my uncle has been given a life sentence for the crime of frailty. Later today I’ll ask Mom how she’s handling it, because if it were my brother I’d be flattened by grief. But Mom’s been through so much, I suspect she’s stronger than me. Is that the answer? That we grow stronger in old age? (October 2014 update: my uncle LOVES the place. It is a beautiful facility which Mom and I visited, and the people there are caring and kind.)

I see all these vibrant eighty-plussers living happy lives. They must have a strategy. I’d like to know what it is.

Recently, my husband, who is 65, said he figured he had about ten more “good” years. A few years ago, I would have bitched at him about that comment, but now I accept the logic of it. Maybe he’ll be wrong but we don’t want to take a chance. So I say, HELL YEAH, LET’S PARTAY. Let’s go on cruises, let’s go on road trips. Let’s golf, make love, go out to lunch and a movie. Let’s drink too much and eat two desserts.

Alice Walker, in her poem “Until I Was Nearly Fifty,” said of this inter-generational wisdom-sharing:

Those who sit
Skeptical
With hooded
Eyes
Wondering
If there really
Is
A path ahead
& Whether
There really
Are
Elders
Upon it.

Yes. We are there
Just ahead
Of you

Looking back
Concerned for you…”

So in that vein, ladies and gentleman of the forward wave, do you have any advice for coping with the upcoming blows to body and heart? Any words of wisdom or strategies to share? I for one would be so grateful, and I doubt I’m alone in my desire to learn.

Aging with Grace

I asked my friend Nanci, at long last retired from her career in K-12 education (as a teacher and principal) how she is adjusting to all her free time. Nanci, in her early sixties, has a brilliant, introspective, ethical and spiritual mind. You might remember her from these skydiving pictures. She’s no wuss. Here’s what she wrote recently, and I think it exemplifies transitioning with grace as we age:a
 
Last week I went to a kayak class in our local Ocean Kayak Clinic. It offers lots of classes from kayak surfing, rolling, expeditions, crabbing and rescues. My neighbor, Roy, and I thought that we might take rescue together, since we often kayak and it would be good to be able to help each other and ourselves should we capsize. I had taken the same class 8 years ago and felt that it was a good class to have and to repeat.
a
It was a cold, rainy day… there were eight of us in the class. I was one of two women and the oldest in the class. I feel that I am a pretty accomplished kayaker, but in this class I was terrible. I was able to help others, but every time it was my turn in the water I could not get back into my boat, except with a ton of help. I remember being in classes with other “lame” (IMO) people and was embarrassed for them and wondered why they were even in the classes.
a
Eventually the class ended and I took my very chilled and soggy body home. I then ruminated on what exactly this means for me. Should I work to regain upper body strength (although I do yoga regularly and it’s not usually a problem for me) or should I just not do any hard kayaking where I might get in trouble or perhaps there may be some other ways to think about the experience.
a
I hosted a Tapas Party a few days later with a bunch of “foodie” friends, including my wonderful yoga teacher. During the conversation, someone asked me about my class…I laughed and said, “True confessions”, and told the group of my struggle.
a
Laura, my teacher, said, “Well, Nanci, what I hear is benevolence of spirit.”
A
And she was right…and this is my real learning from this experience. Because for most of my life I would have been totally humiliated and would have slithered home and berated myself for days. I would never have shared my experience for the sheer embarrassment of it.  For once, I had accepted and loved myself enough to be able to just contemplate what this meant in the realm of my life, without severe judgement. And it felt good. I’m not sure if this is a gift of age, or if it is a late learning for me. It is something I wish I could pass on to young people who live in the shame and embarrassment that I have carried with me all these years. Imagine what we could accomplish as humans if we could be self loving.  Benevolence of spirit, what a wonderful term and a life expanding concept!
Nanci, I’m inspired by your words, and happy you’ve found that sweet place of self-appreciation. Unfortunately, it probably is something the kids will have to wait and work for, because I think it mainly comes with age. Thanks for letting me share your story.