Thirty years ago, my 92 year old grandmother tried to kill herself. They called us from her personal care residence to say she had been found unresponsive, with an empty bottle of pills by her bed. My brother and I rushed to the hospital and heard the sound of her stomach being pumped. For all of you who have never heard this before, it is an awful sound. My brother and I looked at each other, wishing they had not found her in time. Shouldn’t a 92 year old be able to decide when enough is enough?
My grandmother became a widow with two children at 21. Seventy years later, she had buried three husbands, both of her children and one grandchild. Pain from persistent shingles, “pleurisy” and arthritis was constant and all consuming. When doctors gave her enough medicine to control her pain, she was too lethargic and nonfunctioning to live independently. So she faced her own brand of Sophie’s choice — live with pain and be independent, or be pain-free and live in a nursing home. She opted for a third choice.
Everyone called my grandmother Anya, short for Anyuka, the Hungarian word for mother. I think the first grandchild determines what grandparents are called, and my oldest brother chose Anya. In 1931, not knowing any English, Anya left her children with her parents in Hungary and came to America to make a better life for her family. Two years later, she married a widower with children and brought my mother and uncle to this country. Life during the Depression was hard, for Anya and millions of others. But over time, she lived the American dream. She started businesses, and although many failed, some succeeded. Her son became a doctor, and her daughter married a pharmacist. Both had single homes in the suburbs!
Two sisters were faced with who should have a set of dishes that had passed from their grandmother to their mother, and now to them. As they discussed who would get the dishes, they realized that what they both wanted was for their mother and grandmother to “be present” at future family gatherings, and so they developed a plan that worked for them: the dishes don’t really “live” anywhere. At the end of each family event, the dishes are packed into storage bags and taken by whoever is holding the next family event. Whenever the family gets together, the dishes bring up memories and stories, giving their mother and grandmother a presence at the table. I love their solution, because it is about relationships, not ownership. The legacy being passed down is not dishes. It’s loving memories shared by family, and tangible evidence of the good relationship between the sisters. That’s a wonderful legacy.
Two friends have a similar tradition. When their mother died, they couldn’t decide who would get two special items. One was a sterling silver pitcher their mother purchased at an auction when the girls were young. The pitcher had an ornate letter “F” engraved on it, which did not bother their mother. She must have been strangely omniscient, because years later, both girls went on to marry men whose last names began with “F.” Some things are too strange to ponder.
The other item is a beautiful ring their mother purchased during a shopping trip to New York City.
When their mother died, they laid the jewelry out on a table and took turns choosing pieces. Both sisters wanted the pitcher and the ring, and neither could choose one over the other, so they developed a plan to share them, adding their own traditions. The ring is always worn on New Year’s Eve, and the pitcher is always returned with fresh flowers in it. The exchange occurs every year on New Year’s eve. The ring is a wearable memory, an intimate, personal way of staying connected with someone who has died. The pitcher is a physical presence displayed proudly in both homes. Like the dishes, the legacy of the ring and pitcher is about relationships, not ownership.
Last week, I met a woman and her dog walking along a nature trail. As dog lovers do, we started to talk. She said she and her dog walk the two-mile nature trail daily. Recently, she had tried to adopt a second senior dog, to keep her 8-year-old dog company. The rescue organization said that since she was 76, it was likely that something would happen to her during the dog’s lifetime, and the dog would need to be re-homed. Rather than take this risk, they rejected her application. This is what I call the tail wagging the dog.
The numerous benefits that accrue to elderly pet owners are well documented. Pets reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and increase interaction and physical activity. They provide companionship, reduce depression and decrease loneliness. Senior pet owners visit the doctor less often than seniors who don’t have pets. They tend to have fewer minor health problems, lower medical costs, better psychological well-being, and even higher survival rates following surgery for coronary heart disease!!
Helping someone you care about when they don’t want help is complex. When do you honor their wishes, and when do you superimpose your own beliefs out of a conviction that your instincts are correct? Several years ago, my husband and I faced this question with my mother-in-law. It was among the hardest and most important things we’ve ever done.
It’s hard to say when dependence becomes an addiction, when an aversion to going outside becomes a phobia, when a person moves from set in her ways to obstinate and rigid. Looking back, none of us recalled a particular date. We remembered instead a period of time over which a person we loved and enjoyed became increasingly inflexible, bitter and withdrawn. When, we wondered, did we let go of the woman we had known, and allow this stranger to take her place? When did we begin accepting this diminished version of my mother-in-law, as the real thing?
Father’s Day is coming up. I don’t know what to get for Dad. He has lost so much of his memory. At times, he doesn’t even know me. Why bother?
Dad isn’t the same person he used to be. Sometimes he thinks I am his younger brother, Bill, who died in Korea. It hurts.
For the most part, Mom now takes care of the house. She says she wants to do it while she can. Fortunately, Dad is still mostly able to care for himself. My sister found someone to do their yard work, and she takes them to their doctor visits.
I help by paying their bills. I stay with Dad for a couple of hours every week, so Mom can get out of the house. We just sit, and he talks about things that happened 70 years ago. I want to go out for dinner or a game or something, but he just wants to stay in.
Two years ago, the neighbors called me because his driving was so unsafe. I eventually had to get him to stop driving. Mom and my sister agreed that it was the right thing to do, but I felt awful.
I feel like a mean child.
Oh my. Don’t you see it? You are giving him the best Father’s Day gift of all. You and your sister have his back.
Let’s consider the letter you would have written ten years ago, if you had known the future.
For Father’s Day, Sis and I want you to know that we’ll always be there for you and for Mom. And we’ll do it together.
When the day comes that you no longer can drive safely, we’ll make sure that you won’t hurt yourself or anyone else. We’ll be strong when you can’t be.
Your bills will still be paid on time and that your finances will be well protected.
I’ll listen to your stories knowing that it gives you comfort to relive memories. Don’t worry that you’ll repeat yourself or that you won’t remember things anymore. It’s OK. I’ll be there for you.
Sometimes you tell me that I remind you of Uncle Bill. He’s obviously somebody you miss. I’m glad you see him in me.
As your energy runs down, I’ll keep in mind that just being there means so much. Even if you don’t remember me, I’ll make sure you feel my love through companionship, a touch, my time.
Dad, we’ll stand by you. You can lean on us. We’ll be there for you and Mom, always. You will never have to worry about what happens when you are unable to take care of things yourself. We’ve got your back.
I’ll make mistakes. I’ll be impatient. But I’ll do my best.
And Dad, as you are reaching the end of your journey through life, we’ll still be there and do our best to make sure you aren’t alone.
Dad I love you, and I want you know that we’ve got your back. Happy Father’s Day.”
Jean Long Manteufel, senior move manager and CEO of Long’s Senior Transitions in Appleton, WI writes a column on the first Sunday of each month about life changes associated with aging. She can be reached at 920/734-3260 Jean@TransitionsWithJean.com
“Bill, there is something wrong with the fan,” I said to my husband, in another room. He walked into the kitchen, tried the cooking spray, and said, “There is nothing wrong with the PAM.” Life has been interesting since we started mishearing.
In 1985, when my husband and I renovated our home, my mother-in-law offered us $200 to buy a radar range — which is what microwaves used to
be called. We had never owned a microwave and were certain we didn’t want one. “Surely, she will give us $200 toward anything,” I said to my husband.
I was wrong. The offer was a microwave or nothing. So that is how I got my first microwave.
When someone asks my husband how long he’s been married, he says, “Thirty years… 26 of the happiest years of my life.” He’s right, of course. Some years were better than others. Stock prices, interest rates and real estate values have periods of highs and lows. I think long time marriages are like that, too.
What if you knew something about yourself, something that had been part
of you for years, even decades, and suddenly, that thing changed? Did you decide to be different, or did it just happen? Are you happy with the change? I am asking these questions because I went from someone who never wore hats to a confirmed hat wearer, and I am trying
to understand why.
I have never worn hats, not in winter,
not in summer. I am categorically not a hat person. Yet this year, I changed.
I began wearing hats in cold weather,
and now I marvel at how exquisite it feels to have a warm head. It’s unsettling to discover you are different from who you thought you were. I am wondering what other truths that I know about myself might change as well.
Since my business is helping people downsize and move, I work with individuals who, like myself, know what they like and don’t like. Many are moving to retirement communities, but some do not, often because they see themselves as not “that kind of person.” They think they are not the kind of person who would enjoy living in an apartment or a community. Sometimes “that kind of person” refers to things they cannot live without, for example, a garden or a formal dining room. Sometimes it refers to perceptions of community living — “I need privacy, and I won’t have privacy in that kind of setting.”
I am not comparing wearing hats to life decisions like moving to a retirement community, but it does make me wonder if what we “know” about ourselves is really true. I now love something I thought I hated.
It makes me wonder what other things I might like if I were open to change.
It makes me wonder what things my clients might like if they were more open to change as well.
When my husband was growing up, his family had a series of songbirds, canaries and parakeets, each of whom was named Pookie. So it seemed only natural that the green-and-yellow parakeet we acquired would be dubbed Pookie as well.
Pookie didn’t strike me as a very exciting pet. He didn’t sing, he didn’t talk, he didn’t do much of anything. That is, except when my mother-in-law, Bubbie, would visit. Having nurtured the entire Pookie dynasty, Bubbie knew ways of talking to birds that were foreign to me. Her voice assumed a certain inflection, she would give Pookie her undivided attention, and five minutes later, he was singing and chirping away.