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Helping a Mother Age Gracefully

May 15, 2015 Barbara Ballinger

When I divorced, my mother went through her own stages of grief, disbelief, and shame. Few in her family had divorced; fewer of her friends’ children were. She was of the generation that considered it a maternal failing, along the lines of a daughter’s lackluster housekeeping or poor cooking.

 

Though she was angry, she felt compassion for me as well. I remember her telling me in the parking lot of a grocery store when we visited my older daughter at college that I was dragging the divorce on for too long. She didn’t know that I had begged my lawyer repeatedly in emails and calls to find a way to settle with the other side, as we passed year two, then three, and as costs piled up like all so many unpaid bills.

 

Although we never discussed it, I also felt my mother feared she would have to take care of me financially. That wasn’t in the cards. I worked 24/7 to get more freelance work; I looked for a full-time job, even though I was past 50.

 

She was concerned as well that I would be alone romantically. That seemed an equal curse. She had told me repeatedly and tried with my daughters to explain that life without a man isn’t the same or as good; she had been widowed at 72 after almost 50 years of marriage. She never tried to meet someone, though I had looked online for older suitors. She also frequently asked my daughters about their friends and if they were seeing anyone. Health and happiness mattered most, but a guy made a huge difference in completing a woman’s life. And that script certainly played in my head as I started a marathon of online dating and search for a beau–and maybe mate.

 

Now, after 15 years from the time I separated, my mother and I have engineered a mutual dance of admiration She seems to have accepted my single status as she realizes I am not her, and we share different goals. She also sees that I am a devoted daughter, mother, and grandmother, work hard, still have many friends, including couples, and have attracted a number of guys. I take good care of her emotionally, too—calling most days, visiting regularly, and bringing food, including my homemade soups and such favorites as macaroni and cheese and quiches.

 

In fact, for the first time ever, my mother and I are getting to know each other as two adults and to respect our individuality. I never knew my mother well growing up. My father was the dominant one in their relationship, and she felt he was much more admired since he was a physician, more outgoing, and smarter. She did herself a disservice; people loved her for caring–remembering their birthdays and anniversaries, sending little gifts, calling, and sharing wonderful stories of growing up in the Midwest. Most found her to be lively, good company, and intelligent. And they marveled at her survival instincts—moving to New York City at almost 75, joining a new temple, and being courageous in going through cancer as her husband, my dad, slowly stepped away and died from Alzheimer’s.

 

Before my father took ill, I remember he and I stood at the sink of their home while he washed dishes and asked me to promise to take care of my mother when he was gone. He assumed he’d predecease her since he was six years older. Of course, I agreed to be there for her always. Part of that agreement for me involved greater participation on the part of my children in their grandmother’s life. When my father died, I sent my younger daughter to my mother’s for part of the summer to attend a wonderful day camp in her suburban community and keep her company. When my mother moved to the apartment in New York, each of my daughters stayed with her, grew close, and kept her young as their friends came to visit and also called her “Gammy,” their moniker for her.

 

I made time to travel with my mother to the Berkshires in Massachusetts, London several times, a place my parents had regularly gone. We also went to Prague, Paris, and Zurich, and at age 90 she and I joined a school group that went to China. Everyone loved “Empress Estelle” as one travel mate dubbed her. She went on every tour, even one that required walking on rocks. The only part she missed was walking along the Great Wall, though she did get to see and touch it.

 

I now include her in events and dinners at my home as much as I can, especially when friends visit. She rarely cooks, but tries to help by asking what she can do–setting the table, polishing silver, and peeling apples sitting down since standing is more difficult. My friends love that she is smart, engaged in life, reads, and has been an active member of book clubs, her temple, and a neighborhood association. She has become their mom, grandmother, and role model for graceful aging, especially when we celebrated her 95th birthday.

 

Everyone also listens to her raptly as she tells stories Scheherazade style about her past, growing up in Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, how her family gathered Sunday evenings for suppers, how they rode in her grandfather’s car with his chauffeur at the wheel and going out for a nickel ice cream cone; attended Purdue University; and met my father at a hospital in the Bronx when she was a young nutritionist and he was a resident. He asked her out Christmas Eve because he assumed she was Jewish with her maiden name of Cohen. She turned him down because she was going to mass at St. Patrick’s. “I thought you were Jewish?” he asked. She replied, “I am, but have never been to mass there, and I’m new in New York.” He waited until after the holidays. And she continues to rhapsodize about her life with Joe, my dad. My younger daughter and her husband are recording this history on a cell for all of us and my cousins to keep.

 

The hardest part is watching her age. We all despair as she walks slower with a cane or when the absence of a filter becomes more obvious in some comments she makes, whether something I’ve cooked that she doesn’t like or my roller-coaster weight gain. Sometimes, we disagree about how to deal with a thorny issue, and silence between us becomes a temporary wall. When my daughters and I are not around, she says that it’s lonely and too quiet, and when we spend too much time at her apartment, she becomes territorial. I have learned to become Teflon at such times, and focus on her wonderful attributes, including her generosity.

 

I watch her in amazement. Rather than stay home, she now uses a walker. Her eyesight is going due to macular degeneration. I take out library books in “large print.” I read signs on museum plaques to her when we visit exhibits and have learned to be much more patient despite my hurry-up personality, as we slowly move through a gallery. I’ve also learned not to expect to see all exhibited; 30 minutes on her feet is all she can master, and we’ve talked about using a wheelchair which many museums now offer. She’s now willing to try it. Her hearing isn’t so great either, but she resists aids since she says they didn’t help my one grandfather 50 years before. I try to explain they have been improved; it doesn’t matter.

 

And there are other embarrassing signs of aging. More senior moments occur. She resists getting a Life Alert system, even though she still lives alone, and doesn’t want a regular cleaning person to help. She says it’s the cost, but I believe it’s much more about wanting to remain fiercely independent, as she knows her days are shorter. We respect her decisions; they’re hers still to make.

 

For a while, she has been giving away possessions or designating who gets what. A charming little Shaker rocker is going to her only great-grandchild, who lights up her life and makes her want to live. “I love you. I love you,” she tells him repeatedly. He looks up at her and seems to know. And when I bring her food or pick her up to visit, she thanks me effusively. More than the thanks, she has taught me the importance of gracious survival, if I’m lucky enough to live as long. She never thought she would.

 

When I met the man I’ve now dated for 2+ years after a friend introduced us, he quickly told me he was smitten. I explained I was skittish after my divorce and dating. I also issued a condition. “My mother is a huge part of my life. I need to include her as much as I can. If that’s a deal breaker, tell me now, and we’ll stop seeing one another.” He told me not to worry, and he has shown his actions to reflect his words. As time went on, he, too, joined the “Gammy” fan club.




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