My journal entries tell me that in January 1994 I visited my mother for the last time in Edmonton before her death that same year a little while later at age 99. I was the sister assigned to move her from the hospital where she had been for a few days to a rehabilitation center to be “rehabilitated,” a task I readily accepted. She had traveled her life’s journey from a lowly upbringing in one of the Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine to Canada with strength and dignity. Always a real Mensch!
I didn’t know what to expect in this new facility, but it was what the government agency had decided was best for her. The admitting person asked her where she wanted to go when she was finished with the rehabilitation.
“To be with the Lord,” was her calm answer. She was finished with life. She didn’t plan to return to her little apartment. It was time to take the next step.
The model of aging employed at the time was that when you were finished with the hospital, the next stage was a rehab center where you learned to cook and such stuff so that you could take care of yourself again. It apparently applied to all older adults, even people Mother’s age. Mother hadn’t cooked for herself for a long time. My sister Anne brought her food which she just warmed up. At close to the century mark, she was sure her life was ending. But the government decreed otherwise. It had a model of aging that applied to everyone – no exceptions.
Models of aging change over the generations. Believe me.
In the Ukraine where my parents grew up, old men in the village sat on benches in front of the house and “neighbored,” that wonderful Low German word that dares translation. Old women puttered and checked gardens and flower beds.
In the Slavic community in Saskatchewan where I grew up, my father accommodated the old men of the village by providing them with benches in front of his store where they could sun themselves, reminisce, argue, and chew sunflower seeds by the bushel with skills learned over years of practice. This front-bench resting was an acceptable model of aging in that small town, a holdover from the Old Country.
When Dad retired he thought he would follow that model. “I want to rest,” he told me a number of times. He had spent his energies managing a store which included lugging sacks of flour and sugar out the door to waiting wagons and trucks. At age 70 he thought he deserved to rest. He was tired. But he didn’t expect to rest for the next twenty years.
The resting model no longer worked, especially when he and mother moved to a city without benches in front of the stores. Resting alone on the sofa didn’t measure up. He learned his adopted country demanded a new model that required planning for old age—financial resources, goals, living arrangements – and the aggressiveness to find his own front benches if society didn’t provide them.
Unfortunately old age cannot be eradicated like small pox or some of the other vicious communicable diseases. With better health care, better sanitation, and higher living standards people are living longer and hopefully better.
But, and there is a but, a big one. Today’s culture keeps reminding me that at my age I should hide the wrinkles, mask my white hair, leave the cane behind if possible, joke about memory lapses, use euphemisms for death – in effect, be ashamed of being an old person. As if “old” is a four-letter word, a disease. Old people with strong signs of aging shouldn’t be sitting on front benches where everyone can see them.
It bothers me that people watch the elderly like they watch toddlers, only in reverse. Hey, she’s still walking. He is using a cane. Now a three-pronged one. Wheelchair coming up! We are warned that we will all end up warehoused – lots of empty shells stacked in memory care homes because of some form of dementia.
Aging is a mystery compounded of joy, sorrow, pain, confidence, indefiniteness, and sometimes fear. It has few specific answers.
I listened to Barbara Ehrenreich, author and columnist, encourage jobless people living on a lower standard than before to be proud and poor. Poor was nothing to be ashamed of.
The words rang a bell with me. Proud and old. OLD AND PROUD!
Proud whether striding, tottering, articulate or forgetting names.
Proud whether having to lean on someone for support or walking marathons.
Proud because this time is still my time. I am still someone made in the image of God.