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.
By 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.