Aging America: An Ideal Scenario?

demographicsAnti-ageism activist, Ashton Applewhite, writing for The Society Pages, has figured out what an Aging Baby Boomer generation truly means for America. Perhaps it is not doomsday. Perhaps it is closer to an ideal scenario.

Applewhite declares:
The Census Report includes an oft-cited statistic: “An unprecedented shift will occur between 2015 and 2020, when the percentage of people aged 65 and over in the global population will surpass the percentage of the very young (aged 0-4) for the first time.” This means that by 2020 there’ll be one older adult for every child—far better for children’s welfare than the inverse, as well as for the women who once had to produce enough of them to survive famines, wars, and epidemics.

Could a 1:1 dependency ratio mean age equity across the board? No more obsessive focus on youth, youthfulness, youth generations? More funding for preschool programs? More intergenerational schools, parks, programs, and friendships? And wonderful, long-lasting grandparent/grandchild relationships into the future, as Ariel wrote about last week?

One can only hope.

Intergenerational Relationships

Hi, my name is Ariel Sherry, and I am a rising senior at Colgate University with a passion for working with older adults and studying aging. Given that Professor Loe’s Sociology of the Lifecourse class, which I took my sophomore year, greatly fueled my passion for gerontology, and that Professor Loe continues to be an ongoing source of support as I continue my exploration in this field, it’s only fitting that I continue my process of reflecting on this subject by contributing to her wonderful blog.

 

Ariel with Grandma Audrey and Papa Saul

My grandparents at my soccer game

As my first blog entry, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about why I am even passionate about gerontology in the first place. After all, it’s a question my friends and those who meet me and learn of my interest in gerontology often ask. At first I struggled to answer this question because I had never really given it much thought. Upon reflection, however, it dawned on me that the answer was actually rather simple — my relationship with my grandparents.

 

My grandparents have always been important and present people in my life. Thinking back on my childhood, it seems that I was seeing or talking to at least one grandparent nearly every week. It certainly helped that one set moved to the same town I lived in when I was very young and that we had a tradition of calling the other set every Sunday to share updates on the important events of the week. This constant connection is the reason memories of my childhood are imbued with many fond recollections of time spent with my grandparents: from Florida visits, to baking and eating yummy treats, to celebrating holidays and birthdays.

 

I believe that the active role my grandparents had and continue to have in my life has tremendously shaped the way I view older generations. In a book I recently read on ageism, Cuddy and Fiske (2002) describe how one way to confront stereotypes is to meet individuals who defy the expectations set by those stereotypes. In addition, they describe how one’s experiences with certain members of a social group can influence how we perceive others believed to fit that group. I believe that my grandparents served as those individuals who defied the negative stereotypes of seniors as incompetent and led me to perceive older adults, whom I associate with my grandparents, as individuals who are supportive family members and who have wonderful stories and knowledge to share.

Ariel with Grandma Abby and Papa Murray

Visiting my grandparents in Florida

 

While I’m sure there are other factors that lead me to have a far more positive view of older adults than many of my peers, I think the intergenerational relationships in my life have been extremely influential. This makes me feel even more strongly that more effort should be made to promote and facilitate intergenerational relationships. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have grandparents who can live so close by and take on such active roles in their lives, but there are still many other ways for children to interact with older adults, such that they can form their own opinions about this age group rather than automatically subscribe to the negative ageist messages too often spread in our culture. Whether walking with an older neighbor, organizing a senior to tutor a child, or having children visit senior living facilities, there are countless ways to connect these generations. I think this is a key topic to consider as we think about our aging society, and it will be interesting to see what innovative programs develop.

 

As for me, I continue to call and visit my grandparents frequently. I also actively seek to make connections with other older adults. I have one friend, who is 97-years-old, whom I visit just about every week during the school year. And, this summer I have plans to go on afternoon walks with a woman just about to turn 101, and I can’t wait to hear her stories and learn about her experiences!

Continuity Across A Life: Sexuality

IMG_0019Yes I said it. Sexual elder. What’s the big deal?

Why do we judge elders who are sexual beings, when we know that continuity across the life course can be a lifeline?

Talking with the producers of an upcoming public television series on aging, I got the distinct sense that aging and sexuality wouldn’t be a topic of focus for their five-part program. And yet, they agreed that this topic was real, and important. And often forgotten. They pointed out that once an audience can get over the discomfort/controversy, they may begin to appreciate intimacy at any age.

I told them about the book editor who said I was “taking a risk” opening my book with Lillian’s story. (Lillian was a romantic, and she swore that sexuality was central to her quality of life at any age.) And then Glenn jumped in and told them about how his cleaning lady was “casting aspersions on his manhood” so he found a slip at a thrift shop and put it out on his rumpled bed next to his pajamas. After finishing his story (so well told!) Glenn offered to loan them a three-part book series he enjoyed, called Fifty Shades of Gray.

Everyone laughed, but there was discomfort too. Think of the stereotypes. Dirty old man. Cute little old lady. (See my post on Betty White taking on the latter stereotype.) Take age out of the equation and you get an everyday person who isn’t harming anyone, who deserves our respect.

This week, Paula Span of New York times, tells us how hard it can be for those in assisted living, to gain some semblance of privacy.

Glenn and Lillian are living in their homes, mostly independently. But not so for their peers in assisted living. I cannot forget Joseph and Myra, a married couple living in a nursing home, who had to go to the chapel to hold hands.

“How many of us are left?”

At our annual lunch at his favorite cafe by the Hudson River, Glenn usually gets around to the question he’s been wanting to ask.

“So, how many of us are left?”IMG_4024-001

Last year, when he asked this, I was fresh off of the memorial of dear Alice. I swallowed, and told him that about half of the original group of 30 that I profiled in my book were still living. And then we talked about how hard it is to see so many go.

This year the losses were even more personal. My grandfather was one of them. He used to ask the same question that Glenn likes to ask. And he’d want to know about the living – the guys in particular – like how Glenn and Eddie were getting on.

When I told Glenn that I thought only 1/3 of the group was still living (10 individuals), he seeemd to connect with that. “We’re all going downhill,” he said. “I’ll be 97 in two months.”

You may recall that Glenn liked to play pranks to get people laughing. To lighten the mood, I asked him if he had played any jokes on anyone recently. He said no, but he had a big surprise for me. (Each year there is big news of some sort that Glenn builds suspense about.)

Out of his file of papers and pictures, he pulled out a bill for a five-day emergency room stay. $25,000. “My doctor told me my heart wasn’t right, so I had to go to the emergency room.” That was the big surprise of 2014. Luckly, being a veteran meant his bills were paid in full, at least in this case.

Glenn lives for his family. An our annual year-in-review lunch, he brought along a file folder full of evidence of his kids and grandkids’ success, and by association, his pride. There was a picture of a fancy yacht, and an amusing story about his grandson’s summer job cleaning that thing with a toothbrush. Then there was a dog bakery menu – evidence of a job his granddaughter’s boyfriend got in New Zealand. And there was his daughter’s recent book on translating – and a free copy for me if I so desired.

After running through the year’s events, he turned to me and says, “Now it is your turn, run through your highlights.” Uh….. I say something brief and they redirect to questions about his kids.

I imagine his kids must have known something was up when he was wheeled into the emergency room. He talks to most of them every day or every other day, and all of a sudden there was silence. I asked if they came to visit recently.

“All of a sudden, when I was in the emergency room, they all had business in New York. They all came to visit, one by one.”

Now back and home, Glenn resumes his daily calls and/or emails with his children (one in Haiti, one in Paris, one in Washington state, and one in Washington DC. He says he can’t do much, and he misses being active. Walking to the mailbox leaves him out of breath. But he did say that he had his Danish friends over last week for lunch.

We Miss You, Kochi-Dog

We were one of the families that adopted a dog just after 9/11. Matt and I were just starting our life together. We had planned to visit my family in India, around our one year anniversary. Instead, like many Americans, we sat in front of the TV in shock. Our trip was no longer possible.  Then we saw a funny looking mutt named Snoopy flash on our TV screen during a public service announcement.

the former snoopyWeeks later, we took Snoopy home from the Humane Society. We renamed him Kochi, after the place in India that we were no longer able to visit. Instead, we experienced our first lessons in parenting.  The dog (like us) was one year old. He was hyper and endlessly curious. At obedience class, we learned that we had to be consistent in our messaging, or all hell would break loose.

Gradually the dog fell into familiar patterns, and so did we. There was something deeply comforting about daily routines revolving around our new (slightly freakish) family member.

Inside the house Kochi displayed the affection of a kitty cat. He rubbed up against your leg, sat at your feet, straddled any part of you he could get close to. After a dog-sitting stint, my mother said she had never before known a dog to wake her up in the morning by rubbing against her bed.

relaxed, but ready to pounceOutside, the dog lost all loyalties. Life in the outdoors was totally governed by scent. Kochi’s MO was find-and-conquer.  (This may go back to his hardscrabble days living on a farm, before we adopted him, and his mixed Husky heritage.) Walking with us downtown, Kochi always sniffed out the chicken bones and pizza crusts hidden under the bushes. The fleeting scent, sight, and sound of a deer running through the park or neighborhood set him off at a fast pace. And always at the most inopportune times, he found and attempted to kill skunks. He must have been sprayed at least 7 times. The most embarrassing tale involved bringing him to a nature preserve and him immediately clobbering a duck (who survived).  Then again, there was also the time he jumped out of the half-open car window (while I was driving) to catch a squirrel; another uncomfortable memory I immediately repressed.

Given the dog’s unpredictability, we wondered how he’d be with a baby in the house. We followed everyone’s advice; Matt brought the baby hat back from the hospital, which he sniffed readily. When baby came home, he licked her face. The baby then became a child who pulled at his tail, teased, and dropped lots of delicious food crumbs. With her, Kochi was cautious, but affectionate. In 6 years only once did he bark at her; when she accidentally jumped on his foot doing gymnastics. The rest of the time Kochi was a gentle friend and brother, utterly patient and forgiving. L became his primary playmate and caretaker, whistling for him to come, letting him outside, and planning his birthday parties.

feeding kochiFast-forward to Kochi-dog’s thirteenth birthday. He ambled up the stairs, after the line of treats carefully set out for him. That year he almost missed the bone at the end of the path of treats. And getting up the stairs wasn’t easy. I started to refer to him as the elder in our house. We compared him to Great-Gramps, the other elder in our family whom my daughter loved dearly. Both were a bit lazy. They moved slower. They had little aches and pains. Both were near the end of their lives. We talked about making sure to give them lots of love before they go.

Around that time, our daughter set up a “salon” in the corner of the living room. Next to the hairbrush and the spray bottle was a pile of rawhide bones. All types of salon customers were welcome, and all went away happy.

Six months lakochi learns to stayter our dear pup no longer lived for food, companionship, and exercise. He walked with pain, barely ate, and slept for longer and longer periods. As my mother-in-law said, “Kochi is only 10% here.” This was a shocking reality, coming from the dog who seemingly had a million lives; he always bounced back. But a non-wagging tail raised questions about his quality of life. And when he stopped eating for good we knew we needed to call his vet.

Kochi’s vet did something extraordinary. She came to the house to help Kochi die peacefully. This decision was and still is especially hard for me. As a hospice volunteer, I help to make human lives comfortable during the dying process. But I never end a life. I was prepared to continue giving comfort care to our dog Kochi. But what was the point, if a few days of pain and suffering could be avoided?

Comfort care at the end of Kochi’s life looked like this: Matt and I peacefully saying goodbye (petting aby the fireplacend consoling), as he relaxed in his favorite bed in the living room, by the fireplace. I say relaxed, because the vet made sure he was drowsy with sedative. But even with his eyes closed, his nose was still sniffing away, sensing that someone new and interesting was in the room. While renal failure and arthritis slowed him down, dear Kochi never lost his curious spirit.

As I write this, I think I hear a deep sigh coming from the living room, by the fireplace. Smacking teeth and deep sighs have for years been part of my writing process, I now realize. During my working at home days, when Kochi relaxed, I did too, and vice versa. And that’s how it was in the end too.

That first night he was gone, we put on headlamps and tramped out into the dark and snowy backyard to find the holes he had dug the summer before. Each hole got decorated with his favorite bones. Later we joked about the squirrels having a field day. Inside, we hung his dogtag on a nail by the door. We lit a candle, and we looked at pictures and reminisced.

For anyonkochi and his devoted parentse who has lost a beloved pet/family member, you know how hard it is. I still want to feed Kochi the leftover scrambled eggs and Matt still wants to let him out at night.  Three weeks later, we persevere, but there is a huge hole in our lives. We talk about missing him; that’s all we can do.

Of course there is comfort in a life well-lived and the gifts he gave. And relief. Today, thunderstorms are in the forecast, and I am relieved that Kochi will never again have to endure that trauma.

Image

Thank you Mom and Rani, Karen, and Anh – Aunties to Kochi – for the fantastic pictures and memories. I will always treasure these.

If you have a favorite memory of Kochi to share, or a story about saying goodbye to a pet or a loved one, all are welcome here, as usual.

By the way, in case there are questions, it seems appropriate to me that my 100th post on this blog about aging with dignity and quality of life should be about our beloved pet. This blog has been a space for me to grieve and celebrate the cycle of life. Writing is one way I process such things. Thank you for sharing in this process with me, dear, loyal readers.

With love, Meika

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“Getting On,” A Poignant HBO Comedy about Aging & Death?

Friends, HBO has a new show, called “Getting On” about the women who care for elder women in a facility. It is a comedic drama. Has anyone seen it? Is it laughs at the expense of elders? I tried to upload the home page to see a preview and it crashed my computer, so I don’t have a review.

However, after hearing the Fresh Air interview with the creators, I now know that it is based on their experiences advocating for their mothers as they aged in institutions. And the ways in which they talked about the beauty of time spent caring for them moved me, as well as their attempts to honor the work that care workers do. And I like Molly Shannon, who is in the show. So there it is.

If you’ve seen it, I’d love to see your review!

Gratitude and Sadness, Gramps is Gone

May-July 2012 016Dear readers,

I have had a hard time writing, because the elder who inspired my research and so much more, my last remaining grandparent, and one of my best friends in life, is gone.

This week we – Gramps’ family – will gather in his home one last time for Thanksgiving. We travel with hearts full of gratitude and heavy with sadness.

A line from my Gramps’ favorite Streisand songs runs over and over in my head: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

I now see that I really needed my grandfather, and he was there for me. I feel so lucky to have had 40 years of unconditional love and support from Gramps. I have learned so much about politics, movies, well-being, kindness, and generosity from this man. And I am convinced that Gramps made it his primary goal to boost the confidence of those he cared about. So I always felt needed and loved by him. How cool is that?

I am thankful for the closeness of the family he left behind.  In many ways, Gramps fostered and sustained family togetherness and ritual that we will always treasure. Like modeling gratefulness. One funny Thanksgiving Gramps announced how proud he was that his family wasn’t into drugs. In fact, our success (above and beyond being drug-free) was largely his doing – he ensured that we all had the the college education he wasn’t able to afford. And there he was, cheering for us the whole way.

There is so much left to say, but I will leave it here for now.

I feel deep gratitude for the many gifts my grandfather shared, and the memories…

We will leave a big piece of pecan pie out for you, Gramps.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Meika Loe

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