An Elder By Any Other Name

We older people get all worked up about what you call us.  You think you’re having trouble defining us?  So are we.  Maybe we’re sensitive about words because we’re still attempting to define ourselves for ourselves.  We haven’t always been this age. Everything old is new to us. 

It’s understandable that some people who are celebrating an important milestone that begins the last part of life, and that brings physical changes, and that implies fewer choices – would not want to acknowledge it with a name.  It’s as if refusing to agree on descriptions will allow old people to keep from actually getting old.   

We – and I include this oldest generation-and-a-half to take in pre-Boomers – were in the forefront of movements in the 60’s and early 70’s that were intended to do away with labels.  We fought the good fight but eventually none of us could stop people from calling us whatever they choose.  So we are sometimes called Senior or Old or Elderly or Aging.  Add to this the men who say “Call me anything but Grandpa” and the women who say “I love my grandchildren, but don’t call me Grandma.”

I’m not personally offended by any of these words.  They’re not epithets.  They’re mostly attempts to label who we are for the purpose of selling us stuff, marketing being the all-powerful force.  Whether the products are  cars or political candidates, a great deal of money changes hands according to how many of us fit into a specific demographic.

I don’t mind being identified with the older millions when it comes to advertising.  I made a living in advertising for years and I understand target audiences, but I also know of major ways in which advertisers and ad agencies are wrong in their perceptions about how elders think and feel and what we really want.  They’re turning old into a cliche and nobody wants to be a cliche.  There will be a price to pay someday for these oversights, I hope.

The older I get,  the more I resist being perceived merely as a person of a certain age. I know all the ways in which I am nothing like my peers with whom I have in common only the year of my birth.  I give up trying to come up with a word that will please everyone.  From now on I’m taking it case by case.  If a word makes me wince, I consider the intent.  If I feel it’s dismissive, I speak up.

I care very much about language that might diminish in any way the respect that should be paid to this very special time of life.  It’s our responsibility to set our standards high.  The words we’re willing to accept inform the ways we’re willing to be treated. 

Ó By Anita Garner

Grandparent Geography

My only grandchild lives in Los Angeles.  I live near San Francisco.  It’s a 400 mile trip.  I’ve checked flights and with travel to and from airports and renting a car when I get there, it’s easier to drive.  I love this place where I live but I also love that little girl, so I drive a lot.

From the time Caedan Ray was born, her mommy always said the same thing at the start of each visit.  As I scooped up the baby, she’d ask, “You got your Hammy?”  After Caedan learned to talk, when her mother asked the question, she answered with a big loud “Yes!”

During my drive south on I-5, her parents and I stay in phone contact and they tell her, “Hammy’s almost here.”  When I pull up in front, Caedan is waiting at the front door or outside, standing with a parent by my parking spot.  As soon as I’m out of the car, I hold out my arms.  So far she chooses to jump up.

At the end of each visit, after a sad goodbye, I head north toward home, already missing the little family.  At my halfway point, Harris Ranch, I feel a hint of “almost home.” The horizon shifts on the last hour of the drive.  Northern California skies always hold a promise for me.  That’s what I see when I look ahead.  

I live in Marin County, in the redwoods.  This is a place where the ratio of open space to developed land is astonishing and astonishingly beautiful.  Is it foolish to love and need specific surroundings so much?  Or is it something we’ve earned at this time of life?

During the last hour of my drive, traffic picks up considerably as I merge with drivers heading home from San Francisco, coming off the Bay Bridge and through several interchanges.  The skies shift again.  It’s usually late afternoon when I make this part of the trip, and fog rolls in.  I love fog.  It’s one of the reasons I live here.

From the top of the Richmond Bridge, I see ships alongside the dock. Welcome home.  The city shimmers in the distance.  Welcome home.  Here’s the Larkspur Ferry Terminal.  A commuter ferry coasts to a stop as I pass.  Welcome home. I approach my exit and see redwoods in the distance.  It’s familiar and beautiful and it’s blue and green and peaceful here.

But this homecoming is also teary.  As I arrive at home, I’m thinking of the greeting I received from my granddaughter when I reached her door a few days ago.  This time, she controlled everything.  She didn’t wait for me to hold out my arms.  Instead, as soon as I was out of the car, she leaped up and hugged me.  She didn’t wait for her mommy to ask the usual question.  Instead, she announced by herself for the first time, “I got my Hammy!”

It’s good to be home and it’s sad to be home.  This commute certainly isn’t getting any easier.

Ó By Anita Garner

Birds Of A Feather

Here’s a question that comes up a lot lately:  Do you still hear from her/him? I used to think it was a badge of honor to say I’ve had the same friends forever, but just as all of my old clothes don’t fit anymore, neither do all the people I used to know.  I still cherish friendships that have endured for decades, but not all the people I used to know are people I want to be with today.  When we were younger, we clumped together for various reasons.  We formed parent groups, church groups, hobby groups, business groups and volunteering-in-the-community groups.

Today I’m not so big on groups.  One size doesn’t easily fit all.  The friend who makes me laugh may not be the one with whom I want to discuss problems.  Neither does one size fit forever.  I now have a shorter list of friends and a more focused to-do list.

Recently my daughter asked, “Remember when we used to have those parties at our house and we’d have a hundred people there?”  I wonder, where did I get all that energy?  I look at photos and examine old memories and they point to the fact that indeed, fun was being had, yet it’s not a situation I’d be drawn to now.

Have you ever fallen out of touch with someone and then you reconnect and it’s just different?  These days I let an extra beat go by before deciding to restore the relationship.  A few sentences after “Hello again” we may no longer have anything to talk about.

Letting go of relationships doesn’t happen without guilt.  I ask myself why don’t I want to be with these people?  The answer’s right there, but I’m sometimes slow to accept it.  History alone isn’t enough.  Seasons change.  Values change.  People change.

My friend, Catherine approaches life in the most realistic way of anyone I know.  She believes we need different kinds of relationships at different stages in life.  Not only does she let go of the ones that don’t fit anymore, but she quickly replaces them with people who do.

A few months ago, she hosted a party to celebrate her 90th birthday.  I’m one of her newer friends, considering we’ve only known each other about twenty years.  I take her counsel to heart and try to be more aware of the natural ebb and flow, but there will never be another like Catherine.  When I mention any age-related problem, she says, “Oh honey, you’ll work it out.  You’re still just a baby.”  Where would I find another friend who’ll take the trouble to lie to my face like that?

Ó By Anita Garner

Long Term Care

I keep living as if the glass is half full.  Always the optimist, I cling to the belief that I’ll enjoy good health for a long time, and when that changes, I hope to continue this delightful relationship with my family while maintaining my independence.  I’d rather annoy them with my independence than by being a financial drain.  Oh, that’s right.  That’s what we all want.  But it’s likely that one day we’ll need help.   

Stay with me here,  because I still believe this is an optimistic topic.  Planning how not to be a burden should be a positive.  Key word: Planning.  Something I haven’t done yet.   Until now, I carried around all these images that could work, might work. The old fashioned place where everybody knows your name and will miss you if one day you don’t show up.  Neighbors who keep track of each other.  Maybe a charming community center a half block away where seniors drop in to visit and chat and eat delicious food.  Options we’ve seen on television – such as the Golden Girls – living vital lives in a big home with room enough for each of their large personalities.  

Images – that’s what they are.  I don’t personally have knowledge of an ideal model for aging.  I do have a couple of wise and/or fortunate girlfriends (yes we still call ourselves girlfriends no matter our age) who have financial planners who’ve helped them take care of the future.  But those girlfriends had resources years ago.  Back when I divorced, I didn’t have enough resources to interest any financial planner in keeping an appointment with me.  Now the future is here and it’s time to get something together that will keep me from losing whatever I’ve accumulated, should I face a debilitating illness.

I have one child who is now raising a child.  I don’t want to have anything but a positive impact on them, and when I’m gone, I hope their memories are good ones.  Surely there’s a way to achieve  – quickly – some  kind of balance between my inevitable aging and my daughter’s inevitable worry about me. 

Because as a nation we still worship youth, we continue to postpone the prospect that we will actually be old someday, and so we postpone learning about options.  In this country we’re pretty much on our own in terms of health care.  After all the years of working and paying taxes, and all the years of campaign promises, and all the years of voting, and  all the turnover in elected officials who promise remedies, I don’t see any progress.  Our country’s health care system is an embarrassment.  It demonstrates an ignorance or downright lack of concern about this part of life that millions of us have entered.  It’s shocking to be a rich nation and still so poor in terms of dealing with the needs of an aging population.  I’m ashamed of us.

So I’m off on a search for an insurance policy that will help pay for future needs, which aren’t covered by anything I already pay for.  I’ll also have to factor new premiums into my budget.  I’ll start with AARP and see what they have to offer.  AARP is my new community center.

Ó  By Anita Garner

Old Dog, New Tricks

I watched my toddler granddaughter’s anxiety mount as she attempted a new task.  “I tan’t do it!” she announced and went marching down the hall with her head down, in the dramatic way she has of dealing with technical mysteries.  Her mother followed to offer encouragement and asked, “Are you frustrated?”  “Yes!” the little one agreed, “I am fuss-u-wated.”  Her mother urged her to try again.  The answer was “I don’t want to.”

Each time I visit, I see her learning so many new things and I wish I could help her understand a concept she’s too young to grasp – that experience makes everything easier.  The knowledge of how we learn can offer the assurance that we will get it if we keep trying.  

I’m reminding recalcitrant beginners of every age that new isn’t as scary now as it was when we were younger, because we already have experience at learning.  Older people can’t learn?  Nonsense.  Won’t learn?  Unfortunately sometimes true.

My learning process hasn’t changed much with added years.  I digest new data by going through it three times, and then, most of the time,  it’s mine.   First, when approaching something involving substantial motor skills, I like to see it demonstrated.  For other kinds of tasks, I  learn by watching it or reading it for myself.   Second, I need to write it down, making notes I can refer to later.  Third, I’m ready to try.  Eventually I’ll absorb some version of what’s being taught.

The biggest difference these days is that I’m selective about when and where to fire up the learning process.  I’m aware that I don’t have all the time in the world and I know what interests me, so I choose to learn first the stuff that I want  to know or need to know.

For people who’ve decided they don’t need any new data, there’s plenty of science at work to show that using our brain cells really does help keep us healthy while at the same time forming new brain cells.  

I wish people wouldn’t say “I can’t” when what they really mean is “I don’t want to.”  We don’t need any more negative myths about aging. 

Ó  By Anita Garner