Generational Transition


January 30, 2017 by Jean

I have a vivid memory from my grandmother’s funeral in 1975. She had died at age 85, the last of my grandparents to do so, and I was 27. As I looked around the family group in the church, I suddenly realized that my mother and her weeping sister were now the “old people” in our family and that my siblings and cousins and I had graduated to the ranks of “grown-ups.” I didn’t feel like a grown-up.

Mom & ChildrenBy the time my mother died in 2010 at the age of 89, I did feel like a grown-up. She had been the last of her generation left alive in our family. My father had died seven years earlier, the last of his siblings to do so. My mother’s only sister had died two years before she did. My siblings and cousins and I had now moved up the ranks into the generation of “old folks” in the family. But I didn’t feel like one of the old folks; I felt like I was in the prime of my life.

Recent events in my life have brought home to me that I really am one of the “old folks” generation. First came a series of falls among my contemporaries. I was out walking with my sister-in-law near her house when she tripped on a raised section of sidewalk and took a serious fall. She didn’t break anything, but more than two months later, her soft tissue injuries are still not completely healed. In the same week, two of my friends, both of whom suffer from osteoporosis, fell and did break bones. One of these friends, who has other serious health issues, spent more than two months in hospitals and a skilled rehab facility before she returned home two weeks ago. But she is still unable to go upstairs in her house and is only able to manage at home with home health services and many hours a day of home help aides. She has become one of the frail elderly, and it is not clear that she will be able to continue living in her two-story single-family house. Meanwhile, my older sister, who has been wheelchair-bound for the past several years, was hospitalized with serious chest congestion and then discharged to a rehab facility; it seems likely that she will become a permanent nursing home resident because her husband can no longer manage her care at home, even with the help of daily aides.

Last week, I attended the funeral of a close cousin, the daughter of my mother’s sister, who had died after a series of devastating strokes. She was the same age as my older sister, 73, and the first of our generation to die in my immediate family. Her funeral brought another one of those moments of truth as I looked around at my siblings and cousins and at their middle-aged adult children and realized that I really am one of the “old folks” in the family.

Of course, being part of the oldest generation in my family means something different to me now than it did when I was younger. When I was in my twenties and thirties, those in their seventies seemed quite old to me. Now I see my cousin’s death at 73, my sister’s need for long-term care at the same age, and the declining health of my similarly-aged friend as surprising in people so young. Some might say that seventy really is younger than it used to be, that it is the “new fifty” as people live longer and remain more active in older age. I’m not so sure. I’m remembering visits from my parents when I first bought my house. During one weekend visit, I helped my father build a flight of wooden stairs up the steep hillside from my driveway to the entrance level of my house. On another weekend, my father did the heavy work of cutting down dead trees on my property. He was in his seventies at the time. My mother lived independently, doing her own shopping, cooking and housekeeping, and maintaining a reasonably active social life unto her late eighties.

I think what has changed is my perception of what it means to be one of the old folks. When I was young, I didn’t have the imagination to see the vitality, wisdom and engagement with the world of my grandparents’ generation. Now that I am looking at the generation of elderly from the inside, I see us as accomplished adults with wide-ranging interests and much to share with one another and with younger generations.

15 thoughts on “Generational Transition

  1. Linda Hillin says:

    An excellent post. I found it very interesting. I’ve experienced all the things you describe.

    • Jean says:

      Thanks for leaving a comment, Linda. It’s always nice to know that others have had similar experiences (and it’s not just that I’m weird ;-)).

  2. Jean R says:

    Acknowledging that we are now part of the oldest generation—rather than turning a blind eye to it— has its advantages. We can be proactive in getting our houses set up for aging in place. This is really important for those of us without children who, if we have a setback, can’t count on family to build a ramp, put up grab bars, install a tall toilet, etc.—all those things can make the difference between being able to go back home after a setback or being sent to a nursing home. Another thing those of us without children especially should do is have an emergency plan notebook in our kitchens in plain sight that covers everything from contact information for relatives, a lawyer, medical history, medications, who to call for turning on or off services to the house and a pet section if it applies—make it as easy and less time consuming as possible for someone to help us short term come back home after a few weeks in a rehab or whatever.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, This is such a good point, that admitting we’re old can help us to make realistic plans for aging. The notebook idea is an excellent one; I need to get to work on mine.

  3. Charlie Emmons says:

    Thank you for another interesting post. I’ve noticed that in movies from the 1930s and 1940s, many characters in their 50s (sometimes 40s) are described as “old”. When I turned 50, my step-daughter showed me the cover of the latest Time Magazine with the heading “50 is the New Middle Age.” At 74 I now like the idea that 70 is the new 50. Does that mean I’m still middle aged?

  4. Sue McPhee says:

    Well said, my friend, well said. And I wholeheartedly agree that we have much to share with younger generations. I think we also have been blessed with a lot more opportunities to expand ourselves than previous “older generations.” My grandmother never drove. I had older aunts and uncles that seemed so ancient to me. I think they were only in their sixties! And we have so much wonderful information at our fingertips…ways to stay healthy that were not so widespread when our parents and grandparents were our age. Alternative medicine. Nutritional information. How to KEEP our bodies young feeling and vibrant. Yes, many are not so lucky, having been beset with ailments that sometimes could not be prevented. And it truly is sad to see our peers become so impaired, so dependent. Makes us appreciate whatever vim and vigor we still have…. and do what we can to preserve it, I am ever so grateful that I am in a position to help others do that. Truly a privilege. May we live long and healthy, my friend. (After all, grade school wasn’t really THAT long ago… was it?) 🙂
    PS: Give your sister my love. My thoughts are with her and her husband as they make this difficult transition.

    • Jean says:

      Sue, My grandmother took driving lessons when she was in her seventies, but it made her very anxious and she never did get her license. She was very good with public transit, however. As each of her older grandchildren became teenagers, she would take us off on a bus trip to New York City. That was a high point of my young life and the beginning of a love of travel.Somewhere in my early teens, I met a very stylish, lively, widowed great aunt at a family funeral. I only met her that once and I don’t even know how she was related to us, but she made a big impression on me and became my role model on how to grow old.

      • Sue McPhee says:

        That’s pretty wild that your grandmother ventured forth to take driving lessons in her seventies. Even though she never got her license, she “boldly went forth” where few seventies-aged women went at that time. My grandmother (perhaps you remember her as my “memere”) never drove but was not timid about finding her way around. Every year, until her 88th year, she thought nothing of finding her way to a corner in Plainville with a suitcase, wait for a bus that would take her to Boston, switch to another bus that would take her to Montreal to visit her brother Philippe, who was really a brother… the male counterpart of being a nun. She would speak with glee of her experiences up there as he would inevitably take her around the city in a horse-drawn carriage. In her 88th year, she still went up there, but my Uncle Paul (my mother’s brother) insisted that she not do the bus adventure any more and he would drive her all the way up. Memere never held a job outside the home and spent her life doing for others. She lived to 95.

  5. Sue McPhee says:

    PS (again): I LOVE the family picture you posted. I recognize you all. What lovely and loving people!

  6. Dr Sock says:

    It has been a sobering experience to see close friends develop serious health issues. We recently have had two people close to us pass away — a close friend and a relative. They were both in their sixties. It has made me think about my own mortality and make the decision to retire sooner than I might have otherwise.


    • Jean says:

      Jude, It was a life-threatening cancer diagnosis when I was fifty that forced me to confront my own mortality and start thinking seriously about retirement.

  7. Diana Studer says:

    Looking to the future is why I insisted on a house on the level. Just 2 stairs to the door and a few in the garden (if that is a problem, we will have much bigger issues to deal with). We forfeit a sea view to get a level garden. And we can walk to shops, library, doctor – if necessary.

    It’s a wake-up call to find ourselves standing in the front row.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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