Column: Growing old is not easy, memories abound
I don't want to grow old. Okay, so I know the alternative is not exactly a pleasant thought. And my minister says that "Old age is a privilege denied to many." Yes, this is true. It's just that old age is rough. Less mobility, loved ones dying, aches, pains and all manner of problems like loneliness, homes that are not accessible and declining health are but a few of the issues we face as we get older. Who was it that said, "Growing old is not for sissies?"
I went to Ohio to visit my 92-year-old mother. She lives in the same house I was raised in and it has a basement and upstairs. Doorways are narrow. There are a few steps onto the porch. All of these things make it an unsafe and unfriendly place for an elderly lady to be living! But she loves this house and when I bring up the phrase "assisted living" she glares at me like I am the devil. When I point out to her all of the advantages of moving to such a place, she firmly replies, "Not now and hopefully never." Which means the conversation is over and I better be quiet.
How old are Americans becoming? Well, in the year 2000 Americans older than 65 represented about 12.9 percent of the population, or one in eight. By the year 2030, there will be an estimated 71 million Americans over the age of 65, which is about 19 percent of the population. And frankly, most American communities were built for the young and mobile. Millions of single-family homes or condos with master bedrooms on the second floor, lawns to mow, mailboxes a stroll away, and entire neighborhoods designed where everyday errands require a driver's license.
Hey, all those multi-story, single-family homes with big yards were great for Baby Boomers when they had young families. Car-dependent suburbs were good for people with a means and mobility to drive everywhere. Now it is becoming increasingly clear that the housing and communities we've built won't work very well for an aging population. It seems we are headed for one huge clash between housing stock, community design and aging demographics. A Harvard report in 2011 claims that less than 1 percent of housing units in America have accessible features like living spaces on ground floors, wide doorways and hallways, no step-entries, walk-in showers and lowered light switches. In other words, we have created a world for only the young, active and healthy!
Do objects hold memories? Of course they do! Perhaps this is one of the reasons we have a hard time "transitioning" out of the homestead. Yes, it's only "stuff," but that tea set that great-grandmother bought over from England has meaning. The coffee cup that sits quietly in the cupboard that belonged to Dad and the piano that was the center of family gatherings are not easy "things" to give up. Everything that we have placed in our home carries a treasure trove of memories. And if you get older and start losing your memory, maybe being taken from all things that are familiar doesn't help matters.
I went upstairs to my old bedroom when I was back in Ohio. The upstairs is now "off limits" to my mother because her legs can't make the trip. Just as well. Because at the top of the landing is a photo of my Dad in his WWII uniform that begins the sentimental journey. His office, which was my old bedroom, has a 60-year-old Smith Corona typewriter sitting proudly on a desk. Walk into my brother's old bedroom and there is the same blue wallpaper adorning the walls that had musical instruments on it. In the closet is my old Girl Scout uniform, hanging next to my father's WWII uniform.
There are other relics in my mother's house that serve as constant reminders that at one time this was the center of my universe. A tattered bible signed by great-grandfather. A diary of my grandmother's adventure on a ship crossing the Atlantic to a new life. My brother's old high school yearbooks are stacked in a pile on a bookshelf. There is even a heart I drew on the inside of the closet door (really got my mother mad about that) in indelible ink with the name of my first boyfriend written inside. And then there is the attic, filled with boxes of letters that my parents wrote to each other during the war, photos, and even a card I made for my mother when I was 5 years old.
It seems the stuff we keep around us becomes harder to let go of the longer we have had it. My mother is part of the generation that bought and kept things to last. Sofas were reupholstered. Appliances lasted 40 years. Clocks were sent in for repair. Dishes lasted a lifetime. Clothes were darned and patched. Not quite the "disposable culture" that we have today. And it seems now that we put everything on Facebook and young people take dozens of photos a week with their smart-phones to "post" them on social media. But who knows where those pictures will be in 30 years? Are photo albums becoming a thing of the past and as outdated as our houses?
As we get older, the way we live has to change. Therein lies the problem. Whether it is parting with our belongings to "downsize," or realizing the house in the suburbs is simply not as functional as a one level place in town, collectively we all have a lot of thinking and planning to do.
Is age just a number? Is attitude the key to happiness in the "golden years?" Birthdays seem to sneak up faster than they are supposed to. Age brings challenges and change. Maybe even wisdom (still waiting for that). Dear Readers, don't be afraid of growing old. Life happens. And if we are lucky, it happens for a long time.
Judy Bluhm is a writer and a local Realtor who lives in Skull Valley. Have a story or a comment? Email Judy at firstname.lastname@example.org.