Posts Tagged 'dignity'

“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.

Glenn Takes in a New Boarder

Glenn and I had our annual lunch by the river this week, and to build suspense in advance, he alluded to (over the phone) “big news.”

Before getting to that, though, a reminder about Glenn. Over this past year, radio commentators have dubbed Glenn “The Pranking Dane,” and the “Scandinavian Joker,” while my students refer to him as “Glenn, the Sweetheart.” He is the one who served me strawberry shortcake on our first interview session, and then offered housing to my friend, a kindergarten teacher, who lived with him for 6 months (for free).

Over the years, I’ve followed Glenn to gym class, met him at various restaurants, had tea at his home, met members of his family, introduced him to my extended family, had him over for his birthday (same as my daughter’s), and emailed with him regularly.

Aging Our Way is now published, but Glenn still insists on taking me out to lunch to fill me in on his life every June, like we used to do. It is a sort of year-in-review session, not unlike like the year-end reports I have been writing since the semester ended. (Ugh.) But Glenn keeps his report very entertaining.

So there we were. And, like usual, Glenn brought lots of print-outs in a brown paper bag, to illustrate his year. That included:

1) Two 8 x 11 printed pics of his latest project – a small bunkhouse on his family’s land, still in process; he’s one of several coordinators of this ongoing project

2) A picture of his newest great-grandchild who stopped breathing on day 10 of life and then was brought back to life, magically (eanwhile, Glenn stayed up late many nights filling all family members in by phone and email until all was well again)

3) A printed out joke about an elderly man driving to a late-night alcohol support group,

4) A press release about a local student working on global HIV support whom he had put in touch with his son in Haiti, one of many “matches” Glenn makes on a regular basis

If anyone is in doubt about elders taking control of their lives, this report would help them to see the truth, at least in Glenn’s case.

After presenting these, Glenn then moved to the “big news” which involved housing a middle aged gay man for the summer, whom his pastor sent his way.

The backstory is this: Glenn made an offer long ago to his pastor that he’d be willing to take anyone in who needed free accommodations, after meeting with them. Glenn is a softie, and after meeting this guy, and privately admitting to his own prejudices, Glenn agreed to take him in for a few months. From what I can tell, this guy doesn’t have a caretaking bone in his body (he never offers to help with anything) but Glenn doesn’t seem too bothered by that. Glenn is more bothered that this man “is getting the short end of the stick by not being with women; since women are so wonderful.” Just another day in the life of a generous man and his latest boarder.

Glenn admitted to having less energy these days, but these changes weren’t evident to me. He still jokes about marrying again, reading the latest bestsellers, and getting together with his Tuesday morning Coffee Klatch group (all men) at the diner.

Yes, Glenn is still a sweetheart, and, I’m proud to say, a good friend. Thanks for lunch Glenn.

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13 Lessons from Alice

Alice Turner Hastings Murphy was a primary inspiration for Aging Our Way.

Here are thirteen lessons that I have gleaned from this remarkable 94-year-old (adapted from remarks I made at Alice’s memorial service)

1. Be curious about your world

Alice was a reader to the end. Even when sight impaired she would often listen to local radio and listen to a books on tape. As a little girl she would roller skate to the library and get her favorite books: Heidi and Little Women. Then she would sit on a hammock or a bench in her yard and read for hours. Alice also explored her world like crazy. She took the trolley from her house on Hamilton Street down to Pearl Street. She would look at the beautiful department stores, and visit the peanut man dressd as a Planter’s Peanut (who gave out free peanuts). Then she’d stop at Highler’s ice cream – her favorite. Later in life she studied at Radcliffe and Columbia University and traveled the world with her friends; experiences that truly opened her mind.

2.    Create family around you

Alice’s 90th birthday party is a great example of how Alice cultivated friendship. 100 people attended; mostly friends. Her close friends were her family.  Alice was the most loyal friend, even to her pet cat, Bart, named after the rebellious Bart Simpson.

 3.    Cultivate a spirit of generosity – help others as much as you can; however you can

Alice was an active member of the Guardian House here in Albany. This was a home for the old and helpless started before Social Security and in existence for 150 years. According to Alice, each member of the board adopted one resident in that home and saw that her needs were met. This experience really shaped Alice’s life. In old age, Alice said she couldn’t help people the way she wanted to, but one thing she could do was listen to them…

4.    Look people in the eye, listen to them, embrace them

No matter who was involved, Alice treated that person with respect. But it went beyond this. Alice could trace her family back 13 generations in the US, and she said those like her with British lineage tend to be reserved, but she learned over the years that warmth is a better approach. She found that especially as we age, there is almost a universal need for physical closeness and touch. She was a big fan of hugs.

5.    Delight in people, all kinds of people

While others wanted to read the sections about their own lives, Alice wanted to hear about the other people in my book. She delighted in people. She reminisced about her nursemaiden Minnie, growing up. And she talked about her days as Hyde park school librarian/school administrator head.  During those days, Franklin Roosevelt would be in and out and Eleanor was wonderful. She respected both of them tremendously. During that time she said “I got to meet all sorts of families — go to their homes and meet farmers and everyone. That was when I really learned about my world. I was sheltered up to that point.”

6.    Plan for the future – think ahead for the people you love AND for your country

Alice planned ahead in her life. She thought about her end-of-life wishes, and prepared accordingly. She never expected others to speak for her.  When she decided she needed to move to assisted living in Jan 2010, she drew up blueprints of her new apartment and directed movers accordingly on move-in day. She said, “Once a manager, always a manager.” Alice also saw the big picture when it came to her country. She spoke of the war years as exciting times for serving her community and her country. She worked with the Albany public library years and at the canteen with soldiers. She talked about putting pins on maps to mark where the war planes were. That was when she learned all she needed to know about puppetry and put on some great shows for the kids at the public library. She brought smiles to their faces in rough times.

 7.    Insist on your dignity, humanity, and full personhood

This was something Alice addressed directly in our AARP radio interview on aging –the issue of ageism. She disliked being patronized, being managed, being marginalized in old age. She found it painful not to be treated as a full human being. So she raised awareness about ageism when she could.

8.    Try to lighten the moment whenever possible

Alice said humor is so important to a balanced life, she even tried to make her very stern doctor laugh, to lighten the moment. She laughed a lot – that low, gutteral laugh/chuckle, I will never forget her laugh.

9.  Mobilize resources; ask for help to protect your own autonomy

Alice was one of the most independent people I know, but she learned how to ask for help in order to continue to navigate her world as a blind person. For example, she stopped driving, but she retained her car and hired a driver. She asked the Northeastern Association for the Blind volunteers to help her learn to navigate her apartment and the outdoors. All of these moments of assistance made her even stronger, that much more connected, and even more in control. This lesson remains with me every day: that to be independent we must be interdependent.

10.  Never stop making new friends

A major theme across Alice’s life is friendship… She traveled with friends, she never stopped learning from friends. She focused her life around friendship and social networks – from the Fortnightly research club, to the antiques club, to various book clubs. Even at Beverwyck over the last 2 years she made it her project to befriend lonely souls. She sometimes referred to them as her “clients.” She was the best listener a friend could have.

11.    On a birthday, celebrate your age. Better yet, throw a party for your friends.

Alice’s 90th birthday party was a gala affair, written up in Times Union. To entertain her friends (and educate them at the same time), Alice  put her old clothing on display, like the bloomers she wore at St. Agnes (the original Doane Stewart) for physical education. For her, this was a party for her friends, to thank them for making her life richer.

12.   Be a rebel; stand up for what you care about

Alice’s rebellious spirit manifested in little ways. At one point, when the condo association was about to chop down her favorite tree, she and her friend Betty threatened to chain themselves to that tree. As a child, she found herself in trouble with her mother quite often: whether roller skating through the tunnels,  or signing fake names on petitions distributed by Alice Morgan Wright, Albany sculptor and suffragist. She also befriended servants and their children, to the dismay of many in her community. She believed herself to be a feminist throughout her life. In this she was inspired by her grandmother, and to some extent, her father (who was ahead of his time).

13.  Delight in the moment, in the preciousness of life; don’t dwell on the negative

Alice never complained. For this reason, it was hard to know how she was doing health-wise. But she was  pragmatist in all ways. It didn’t serve her or anyone to be negative. However, she did admit that the hardest thing about growing older was loss of friends. But she also believed strongly in honoring the cycles of life and death. She gave my daughter a book she enjoyed in her childhood, called The Christmas Kitten, about a cat that dies on Christmas day, but her kitten survives. She thought children should learn about these natural cycles early-on and not be afraid of death. She herself was fearless. She said, “When the time comes I will be ready.” But until that moment she was committed to appreciating life in all of its beauty. And boy, did she ever.

I know I’m a better person after knowing Alice. I imagine many of us feel that way. Thank you Alice, for all of the gifts you have left with us. We will miss you.


The Author

Meika Loe

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