Tag Archives: Aging population

“The Best Grandma Ever”

I’m sitting here this morning listening to Andrea Bocelli sing the exquisite “Sancta Maria” from Pietro Mascagni’s famous opera, “Cavalleria rusticana”. It’s one of a handful of CDs and photographs we carried away from an out-of-town family reunion, brought together for the memorial for Cheryl’s Mom, Anne, who passed away last month.

As she had in life, Anne continued to bring together her extended family. We spent the three days renewing old acquaintances and making new ones, talking about old times we knew about, and many we could only imagine. Prior to the gathering, we had put considerable effort into digging up old photos, piecing together Anne’s family history, which seemed shrouded in

Grandma to be in her 20s

Grandma-to-be in her 20s

mystery. Like many in her era, she didn’t talk much about her often-challenging past, and like so many in our era, we didn’t think to ask about it … until it was too late.

I – and even Cheryl – didn’t get to know Anne well until she lost her husband about twenty years ago. Perhaps the two of them had “lived in each other’s shadows” for her widowhood propelled Anne into a series of new adventures: traveling solo and striking up conversations with unlikely strangers, enrolling in self-development workshops, and, of course, visiting us more frequently (all despite her fear of flying.)

It was also during this time that Grandma joined us for a spell during our half-year in Costa Rica. She and two friends toured some of the back roads with us, sleeping uncomplainingly in bug-infested mountain shelters that let the light through the walls. I recall one night when we stood on a barely cooled lava flow of Mt. Arenal, watching and listening to orange-red rocks tumble toward us from the glowing peak. I could tell that she was nervous, but she wasn’t going to let that get in the way of a good adventure.

Mount Arenal at night (This was the 2008 eruption.)

Mount Arenal at night (This was the 2008 eruption.)

Our two boys, now young men, had nominated Anne as “best grandma ever”. When they were still too young to fly alone, they began a practice of each visiting Grandma for a solo week every summer. They must have been good times as both boys continued these annual visits well into their late teens – at least one of them had his first legal drink courtesy of Grandma. (The drinking age was lower where she lived.) More so than the boys’ parents, Grandma was game for the kinds of restaurants and movies that teenaged boys appreciated: Star Wars, the Matrix, Bruce Lee, and who knows what else. They drove her golf cart and probably lived in a junk food heaven.

Grandma also collected her extended family on other occasions. In the late 90s, she discovered Maui. The occasion of her discovery was not a happy one: the favourite aunt who’d invited her passed away while out in the surf. We were quite surprised when Anne elected to return to the same condo the following year,… and included all of us: kids, spouses, and grandkids. “Do you mind that I’m spending your inheritance?” she’d ask Cheryl. No one objected.

The last time Grandma took us to Maui

The last time Grandma took us to Maui

She did this twice more over the ensuing years, hooking the family on Hawaii forever. One of our boys talks of moving there, and both of them were quite happy to join the reunion a couple of years ago, which Grandma was unfortunately not well enough to enjoy. I suspect that Maui will be a spot of choice for future family reunions.

Anne was also a thoughtful conversationalist, well read, and interested in many subjects. Always when we saw each other, she and I would start conversations about politics, or demographics, or religious fundamentalism – and then continue them for months afterwards by email. While she held strong opinions, she was always open to persuasion by a good argument.

As for her opinion of me, her son-in-law, I’d say that once she’d sized me up and decided I would be good for her daughter, she was content to trust us, and never interfered in our lives. This sizing up took place quite quickly, thirty years back, and she’d reached this conclusion despite the fact I’d appeared out of nowhere, had not yet officially divorced my ex, and Cheryl and I had just applied to immigrate to Australia. I’d like to think Anne was a good judge of character: she was “no nonsense” and would size people up quickly. She also knew that “hands off” was the best policy once her kids had left the nest: a good example for Cheryl and me with ours.

One of our earlier visits

One of our earlier visits

Whatever challenges Anne may have had in her early life, she continued to have quite a few in her later years. Her husband died young. Several members of her immediate family became increasingly ill in their later years, and relied on Anne for daily care. By the time the last of them had passed away, she was exhausted. And determined never to set foot in a hospital again. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Like Mascagni’s sacred aria “Saint Mary”, which comes from an opera about seduction, revenge & adultery, Anne had her contradictions. Despite her generally healthy lifestyle, she was a lifelong smoker, and in the last few years, it caught up with her. Her declining health pushed her away from the activities she loved: golf, championship bridge, and time with friends. As she weakened, she resisted suggestions to move into an assisted living complex, … until it was too late, and she landed in a hospital ward instead. Over the next couple of years she bounced back and forth between the hospital and a senior’s complex. It took a toll on her “can do” attitude, and affected her family as well.

Grandma with our niece

Grandma with our niece

The last time I saw Grandma, she had made it out to visit us at Thanksgiving. She and I were discussing the idea of cohouseholding, one of the themes of this blog that Cheryl and I are investigating for our retirement. Anne turned to me and said, “You know, Paul, here’s what I wish I’d done 15 years ago. I wished I’d gotten together two or three of my widowed friends, and all moved into a big house together. I wouldn’t be in the condition I’m in today.” I had to agree.

In preparing for Grandma’s memorial service, I learned things I’d never known about the impact she’d had on our boys. One of them, now a producer of marketing videos, put together the DVD for the celebration of her life. He was relating to me one of his favourite memories about Grandma, one that was unfamiliar to me.

At the time, he was 12 and Grandma was traveling with us in Costa Rica. We were on a tour of a number of smaller locations around the country. All the arrangements for these two weeks had been made by our guide and driver, Alexander. This particular day, we were staying at a hotel run by an expat who thought himself above the “help”. He had put Alex in the “servant’s

Already the "world's best grandma"

Already the “world’s best grandma”

quarters” and hadn’t invited him to join us for meals. My son told me that Grandma would have none of that. She insisted that Alex be treated as part of the group, … or else, … and offered to pay extra if necessary. She must have had her way because Alex ate with us for every meal.

Clearly this had a deep impact on my son, and he clearly still sails by her sense of fairness a dozen years later. Such is the impact that the “world’s best grandma” can have.

When and if our turn comes, may we rise to the task.

PS. Here’s a link to my post about my own Mom.

 

 

 

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Do Not Go Gently: Adventures in Aging

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
–  
Dylan Thomas   (1914-1953)

“It’s started!  My body’s starting to die!”  Those thoughts flashed through my mind when, at the age of 30, I noticed that one of my front teeth had simply up and died.  Irreversibly.  For the first time it hit me that, as Aristotle pointed out, I am a man and all men are mortal, and … well, you take it from there.

More than three decades on, a blog post on the theme of aging got me thinking:  the signs of getting old can be a spur to new adventures.  That seems a better way to view it.

gettingOlderMy own mother had been a shining example in the last months of her life.  Diagnosed with a terminal cancer, she seemed to grow in peace and grace as the illness consumed her physical energy.  My siblings and I felt ourselves in awe as her spirit expanded with each passing day.  Somehow, the approach of death had moved her to a new level.  How different, I thought, from others I had known who grew bitter by the same measure.

On much less demanding aspects of aging, I’ve noticed that I often gain something new as each part of my body loses its shine.  My own good doctor has helped with this.  A man of my own age, he eschews pharmaceutical solutions where possible.  He also has an annoying habit of co-opting my complaints.  I went to him with a sleep problem – an “inevitable sign of aging.”  His response: “If you’re playing computer solitaire at 3AM, look for me online and we can play together.”  Instead, I tried a biofeedback clinic and got a lot more than I bargained for.  Using the biofeedback technology, I was able to reduce my overall stress levels.  At the clinic, I met a world-class peak-performance trainer, and learned new breathing techniques to increase my heart-rate variability.  It turns out increased HRV is a key marker for reduced mortality – not to mention increased willpower.  It was an exciting and useful discovery.

That was not last dose of my doctor’s empathy.  “Doctor, I’m really tired of late.  Do you think I need testosterone?”  He humoured me by running a test.  His prescription?  “You should try some volunteering.  Nothing like feeling useful to keep you alive.”  That was how I ended up mentoring new immigrants, a fantastic experience that’s still developing.

On my last visit to the doctor’s office, I was complaining about the lingering pain in my shoulders, brought on by a game of trampoline dodge-ball months earlier at the local “extreme air park.”  (Was the name a tip-off?)  “Yeah,” he said, “that shoulder pain really messes up my tennis serve.  But try strengthening the muscles in your back.”  So, I spent a few sessions with a personal trainer to develop a new travel-friendly exercise regime to add to my “Younger Next Year” program.  Not only are my shoulders in much better shape, but I’m starting to feel “buff”.

Promotional picture for Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park

Promotional picture for Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park

My aging libido has been a huge source of new experiences.  I was naïve enough to think that being slower to “get it up” might at least lead to more endurance.  Not.  This time I knew I could probably get a little blue pill from my doctor, but I opted for looking into some massage training and even some Tantra.  These areas turned out to be rich areas for fun and exploration, for both Cheryl and me.  Pursuing these activities also led me to find a great personal development coach (who became a friend), as well as joining a men’s support group, also a new and life-altering experience.  Even starting my bucket list grew out of this quest to compensate for dropping testosterone levels.

Another complaint as we age is how we lose our friends.  At first, they just become less active and available;  later, we lose them for good.  When Cheryl and I noticed that it was getting harder to get our friends out hiking, we joined an outdoor club, leading to many more friends, and brand new adventures.

Eulalia Pérez de Guillén Mariné (1765–1878), ca. 1870; published in 1900

Eulalia Pérez de Guillén Mariné (1765–1878), ca. 1870; published 1900

I sense a pattern.  If we embrace each challenge that aging brings, and rise to meet it, rather than settle for an ever-shrinking life, we can grow in new directions as long as we can still take another breath.  I know I’ve yet to be hit with the really big challenges of aging, like the one my mother surfed so well.  When I am, with her example, and through practice with the smaller challenges, I hope to do half as well as she did.

For now, I’m grateful to benefit from the upsides of the smaller aging setbacks, to see the possibility in each new skill I need to learn in order to battle entropy.

My current quest to create a post-retirement career has proven a challenging one.  May it prove rich as well.  I recently started working with a counselor to see if I could move things forward faster.  A top local hypnotherapist, this woman is a “poster child” for what’s possible career-wise.  Well into her 80s, she’s one of the City’s top practitioners in a field she only entered after retiring from teaching at 65.  I’m now working on transcending some lifelong beliefs I’ve held that have likely been a drag on my career success.  Once again, a crisis of aging is pushing me into exciting new territory.

Latin Funk Dance with Gustavo Ferman

Latin Funk Dance with Gustavo Ferman

There’s a playful side too.  One area we identified for growth was exercising my creative muscle, and in particular, the operation of my corpus callosum, that part of the brain that coordinates the left and right hemispheres.  One of the best ways to build up your corpus callosum is to learn some new dance steps.  So, after years of putting it off, I signed up both my left feet for weekly lessons in Latin Funk dance.  I’m loving it!  My new shoulders are holding out, too.  And, although the instructor is male, most of my classmates are not.  All those Latin-swinging hips aren’t bad for the aging libido either.

Related:

More than a few unanswered questions

Shedders is our favourite blog. It doesn’t hurt that the author is a long-time friend. Here she writes about one of the many great conversations we had when she and her husband came north for their annual visit last summer – their “Down Under” winter.

SHEDDERS, by Heather Bolstler

IMG_2890We had an interesting conversation at breakfast yesterday. Old friends Paul and Cheryl had met up with Rick and me in Powell River BC for a few days‘ exploration, and we were all relishing the Breakfast part of B&B existence. You may be amused by the familiarity of the threads of our discussion – except for the tragedy and frustration of it.

The conversation began as you might expect with compliments on the fine food served up by Yvonne, our hostess, and then drifted to the very social lifestyle of B&B proprietors. We found similarities with Rick and my Shedders’ co-housing arrangement, and that in turn led into co-housing communities that some of us had recently inspected, here on BC’s west coast.

From there, we fell smack into more dangerous territory. All these retirement communities, we lamented; where have all the children gone? Yvonne wondered why our children tend not…

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Ageing Heads in the Sand?

Cheryl and I attended a workshop last weekend called Ageing Well in Community, sponsored by a seniors’ cohousing initiative.  I think it was the “Community” part that attracted our attention, not the “Ageing”.  After all, we’re still young, right?  Our average age is still under sixty, just.  (In fairness to Cheryl, I’m contributing more than my fair share to that average!)

Biking the hills at Les Baux-de-Provence, France

Biking the hills at Les Baux-de-Provence, France

We joined the outdoor club and are hiking and biking more than ever.  I’ve taken up an exercise program called “Younger Next Year”, and I’m feeling good about it.  I’m  in better shape than I was a year ago, and back near my college weight.  Cheryl’s taken up sprint triathlons.  In our coming decade or two, we look ahead not to ageing, but to more travel.  We’ve signed up with Couchsurfing, and booked a biking trip in the Dalmatian Islands, so we’re definitely young at heart.  We both still work at demanding careers, and are working towards our next one.

We were a little surprised by the image on the front of the course workbook:  a man with his head in the sand.  Surely that wouldn’t be us?

We were pretty smug about others who had their heads in the sand about ageing.  We had dealt with relatives of our parents’ generation who had refused to make plans for independent living until circumstances forced them into assisted-living complexes.  By refusing to accept the fact of their ageing, they had lost their independence when it was no longer possible to do much about it.

We also looked around at our own peers who were talking about retirement and still not saving anywhere near enough to finance it.  We were often shocked at the statistics of baby boomers heading into retirement with significant debts and mortgages, and an expectation that their current salary would continue for decades past traditional retirement age.  They definitely were behaving like ostriches.

What, me worry?

What, me worry?

However, as we worked through the first day of the workshop, we began to shift our perspective.  We are getting older, and those “ageing things” are getting closer.  We’ve lost friends to cancer, and more in our circles are widows and widowers.  We notice that some aren’t as sharp as they once were and wonder if it’s the beginnings of Alzheimer’s.  Friends and relatives younger than us have artificial hips or knees.  Our hiking and biking companions are sidelined more often, sometimes indefinitely.  We’ve become good friends with our physiotherapists.  At present, I’m dealing with shoulder problems.  While I’m still hoping to resolve them, I may not.  For now, I’m having trouble reaching things from top shelves. Wow!  I’m one of those “old people” with “reduced mobility”.  Fast forward fifteen years, and it’s highly unlikely we’ll have quite the energy and stamina we have now.  We might not want the same demanding workload we currently carry.

Like a growing number of people, we also realize that the world’s rapidly ageing population is going to put serious strains on traditional models of healthcare.  No matter how we organize society, when the population is ageing, and the ratio of younger workers to retired people is dropping, the cost of that care is going to rise.  Except for those who are independently wealthy, we are all going to feel the squeeze.

If we put these thoughts aside and wait until necessity intrudes, we may find it’s too late to take the necessary actions to maintain our independence.  Like others we’ve regarded ruefully, we may wake up one day and realized we’ve missed the opportunity to create our community of support.

Our friends still like to play

Our friends still like to play

As we discussed in an earlier post, we’ve been investigating the role of community – including some sort of shared or collaborative housing – in staying young and providing mutual support.  So far, it’s been a Good Idea.  Good enough to get us to the workshop last weekend.

While the workshop exposed us to a lot of creative ideas for building community and constructing collaborative living arrangements, it also made us realize that these things take time.  If we wait until we need community support in order to remain independent or manage our health care, it will be too late to build it.  Developing a collaborative home or a cohousing development can take years:  we know of few who’ve done it in three or four, and many who’ve taken seven or more.  Even if all we do is move to a new community, it will take time to become integrated and establish new networks and friendships.  The time to start is now.

Coming out of the weekend, we have a new sense of purpose in building our future community, … plus a lot more creative ways in which we can get started.  As interesting as we find the traditional cohousing concept, we’re not sure it’s the model for us.  But there are plenty more to choose from.  It’s a good thing.  As boomers age,  more and more of us will realize it’s going to take some creative community building to meet the challenges of the coming years.  No one solution is going to be able to match the magnitude of the requirement.

In less than two decades, I'll have one of these!

In less than two decades, I’ll have one of these!

As I was writing this post, I was chatting with Cheryl’s mom, who is visiting us from her home in an assisted-living complex.  She was telling me about how she was too young to take up some of those exercise activities that the staff put on.  Maybe next year, she said.

For my part, I have acquired a new sense of urgency, not a panicked urgency, but a realization that the biological clock is ticking.  Having taken my head from the sand, it will not be so easy to bury it again.  We need to pick a direction and start taking concrete actions to make ageing well in community our reality.  It’s time.

Need more?  Check these out:

What’s your take?

Why Live Alone

A few years back, we learned of a successful experiment in communal retirement living pursued by some old friends of ours in Australia.  They had joined with two other couples, and built a special home to their requirements.  While each couple has private sleeping quarters, they share most of the 3500 square-foot house.  They love it!

Collaborative retirement household featured in "A group solution to growing older", Sydney Morning Herald, June 3 2013

Collaborative retirement household featured in “A group solution to growing older”, Sydney Morning Herald, June 3

What first caught our attention was the possibility of saving money, retiring sooner, and traveling more.

However, the more we looked into it, the more we discovered that the real value of their arrangement was the new community that came with it:  something equivalent to a new family.

As we approach the next phase of our lives, we can feel our old communities slipping away.  Our kids are preparing to leave home – we think.  When we retire from our current jobs, we will quickly lose touch with former colleagues.  Our friends are beginning to retire and move away – some to the countryside, some overseas.  We ourselves plan to move out of the City, and expect to spend more of the year abroad.

We watched what had happened to our parents, aunts, and uncles.  Many of them ended up living alone for the final years of their lives.  Some of them were shepherded into assisted living complexes when living alone became too uncertain.  Even for those who managed to stay independent – often with the help of several nearby grown children – the solo years struck us as missing something.  Was there a better way?

The tranquil view from our former island cabin - too much solitude now?

The tranquil view from our former island cabin – too much solitude now?

Cheryl and I have valued our privacy over the years.  We started our family in a development of five and ten-acre wooded lots.  We later enjoyed spending time with our boys at our off-grid island cabin.  Our retirement dream at one time included a 40-acre spread of wild countryside.

Now our perceptions are changing.  Selling the island cabin may have heralded this change;  we thought it would be too isolated as we got older.  Our experience with our own parents was pivotal:  we would probably live longer than they did, and – like most boomers – we have fewer children to rely on, children who are unlikely to live in the neighbourhood.  The same demographic shift likely means that the cost of assisted living will escalate while the quality of life in those complexes will decline.

Our reading has also underscored the importance of community.  The declining birthrate worldwide will make it harder to replace the old networks of support we are losing as we transition into the next phase of our lives.  Initiatives such as Blue Zones have shown how critical maintaining community is to our health and happiness as we age.  This aligns with advice on nurturing your communities in books such as Flourish and Younger Next Year.  We have all read by now how we can keep our brains younger by engaging in mental activity such as language skills and problem solving.  Living with other people is one way to ensure that kind of mental workout.

We recently joined an outdoor association, and were surprised to find so many retired or almost so.

We recently joined an outdoor association, and were surprised to find so many retired or almost so.

We’re now in the process of realigning our personal tradeoffs between privacy and community.  Can we construct a future for ourselves that replaces the communities we are losing?  We’re taking steps to reach out and join or create new communities for various activities.

What about collaborative living?  Is there a solution that will work for us?  Our friends in Australia had known their housemates for many years before moving in together.  When we took inventory of our own circles, we found very few possible candidates – when we broached the subject with some of those, they soon announced they were moving out of town.  Coincidence, we’re sure!

Can we find new partners for such a venture?  Perhaps.  It’s not a trivial exercise.  The householders and our friends call themselves The Shedders – primarily because of the physical and emotional baggage they had to “shed” in order to make living together work.  Will our circumstances dictate a different form of collaboration?  How far are we willing to go in trading our privacy for community?  We are grappling with now with these questions.  We’ll share some of what we learn over the months ahead.

Solitude or community - in the Marais district of Paris.

Solitude or community – in the Marais district of Paris.

Here are some of the sources that have influenced our journey.

  • Shedders:  This is Heather Bolstler’s personal blog about the journey to their collaborative retirement home.  The earlier entries are now available in this eminently readable Kindle eBook.  The Shedders are by no means the only ones to have made this work.  “My House Our House” profiles a group of three women who turned a preexisting house into a collaborative housing venture.  With an ageing population and lingering economic malaise, we predict a lot more of these in the coming decade.
  • A quiet home on a private acreage no longer the ideal?

    A quiet home on a private acreage no longer the ideal?

    Our own recent experience – such as our recent cycle trip in Provence – has underscored our own need for community.

One of our reasons for starting this blog is to reach out to a wider circle in our search for community.  We’d love to hear from you on this subject.