“Enhancing the dignity of old age.”
This phrase dwelled in my head after I received a letter from Temenos House, Wheat Ridge, Colorado, with that motto emblazoned across the top. Our common perception of old age tells us that there is nothing dignified about it. Old age carries with it the specter of death, not to mention the all too evident signs of infirmity-reduced sensory acuity, declining motor function, feebleness, drug dependency and so forth. Where is the dignity in that?
If it’s there, it would be good to find it, since the baby boom is now shepherding its parents through old age and death. And not long after, this vainglorious generation of once-eternal youth will itself pass from nostalgia into nonexistence.
So perhaps this is an apt time to discover dignity in old age, lest my generation become known less for the radical shifts of the sixties and more for a puling exit from the stage of life greeted only by great relief from the generations to follow. “Whew, I thought that last act would never end!”
My family recently gathered for a party for my mother’s 85th birthday. As usual, our mom showed us the way to dignity in old age-yes old age, not “seniorhood” or some such silly locution. Things that are old have achieved something. Think only of diamonds, scotch and cheese. Aging itself can bring dignity. Just listen to the stories of the old.
My mother’s hearing is not what it used to be, so at times she sits at the side of the action and looks bemusedly, and somewhat forlornly, at the hubbub going on at the center. At those times, I catch her eye and she gives me a deep, sweet smile born of age. Then I remember her story, the life she has seen, which makes the hubbub at the center somewhat ignorable.
My mother’s parents came from the northwest of Ireland at the turn of the century. They married in New York and my grandfather joined the ranks of New York’s Finest-an Irish cop. When my mother was thirteen, her dad was blown up in New York harbor in a fueling accident. She adored her father and without him her mother stalked the halls of their crowded flat in a semi-mad rage.
My mother’s first escape would be to college. She wanted badly to go to Hunter College, a jewel in the crown of New York’s City College system. Instead, her family insisted she go to a Catholic girl’s college in Westchester. It smacked too much of a nunnery, so she rushed back to enroll at Hunter, but she could never catch up. She dropped out and has been wistful about it ever since.
She met my father when he was the chief pyrotechnician (fireworks boss) at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows. A good Catholic girl, she produced seven children over a span of fifteen years.
When I (the youngest) was just finished toddling, the sixties hit. The text of the American dream was torn to shreds. My oldest brother dropped out of college in his last term to take refuge in LSD, Swami Satchadinanda and Greenwich Village. At age seven, I saw my first sugar cube of acid when my brother came home to visit and proselytize for the new consciousness.
My mother didn’t know what hit her. She was unprepared for this world. Before long, she would have two other sons dropped out in Haight Ashbury and another in the Navy off the coast of Vietnam. My father became very ill with an undiagnosed disorder that caused him to black out and behave bizarrely. My mother had to leave him behind to fly to Texas to witness two sons standing trial for smuggling marijuana across the border from Mexico. At the trial, where they were sentenced to federal penitentiaries, the judge intoned, “What kind of a mother must these boys have that they turned out like this?” She cried all the way home on the plane, returning to my father sick in bed. Why didn’t they just give up?
When finally we had all left home, a few years later my father died of a massive heart attack during a Christmas party. At the funeral, my mother seemed so diminutive, diminished.
That was almost twenty years ago. I never would have guessed at the strength that my mom held in reserve. She has continued as the matriarch and presided over largely happier times from a subsidized senior’s apartment. She has less than modest means and most of her contemporaries have passed on, and yet she can comport herself as a duchess.
The ads stress “old age security” but I don’t quite believe it. I doubt you’ll find security there, but you may find some larger virtues, like wisdom and courage, and therein lies the dignity-to have tasted so much life and loss and yet to live on with care and grace. There may be no need to enhance the dignity of old age, only to discover it and draw it out.