Aging Parents–Mothers. Eavesdropping on a Conversation With Implications for the Holidays

Two older women sat at the table next to us, having dinner at a nice NYC restaurant the other night. Both were well into their 80’s according to the conversation my husband and I couldn’t help but overhear. (OK. My excuse for eavesdropping).

These independent, with-it widows have travelled, had busy lives, and live nicely but carefully. I want to share major themes of their conversation. They’re not only applicable to many elderly women, but also give us insights we might not otherwise have. The themes: getting around, security, and isolation–seem interdependent for aging parents.

Getting Around (mobility/transportation) and Security

Transportation–getting around….taking buses or taxis…taxis especially at night because of security–occupied their conversation for some time. For example, they didn’t want to chance walking blocks, possibly void of people, in the dark. “A slow-walking old lady isn’t safe alone,” the woman with mobility issues interjected as they discussed taking the more expensive taxi home at night. Taking the bus, for one woman, entailed having to walk an additional block to her apartment.

The problems posed by lack of certain transportation resulted in having to forgo, for example, attending a friend’s funeral in a suburban community. A discussion ensued about the deceased family’s understanding the transportation problem that prevented their attending.

One woman had hired a driver to take her to a funeral a few years ago, but it was very costly. Their concluding thoughts on the subject: they’d been regularly visiting a very ill friend up until this friend’s death…and that’s what’s important…not attendance at the funeral.

They agreed lack of energy affected how they spend their time. One evidently always gave large parties, but no longer. Decreased energy and the fact that it takes longer to do things prevent her from even thinking about attempting a small party now. Her friend talked about those past wonderful parties.

This led to the topic of Christmas eve , but it could just as well have been Christmas day or New Year’s eve or New Years day. One asked: “What are you doing Christmas eve?” The immediate response “nothing–what about you?” Response: “Nothing,” followed by “do you want to do something?…let’s get together.” Response: “Yes…..”

Isolation

 My husband (with no counseling background other than being married to me) noted: “They’re (the women) like individual islands.” In counseling we talk about the “isolated elderly”….psychological isolation, not necessarily physical. Their world shrinks. Perhaps it’s inertia. They don’t initiate social contacts.  And planning very far ahead is no longer part of their lives (unless someone else does the planning–eg. the doctor’s office). But they’re happy to do and to go when someone suggests it.

Sr. Advisor R, who’s very wise, says she learned, when widowed in her early 50’s, if she invited a woman to lunch, she was never turned down. But she was often the one to take the initiative. Otherwise, she said, she’d have no life. Yet some reciprocated and she made a life for herself.  Sadly many elderly don’t think that way. They sit…and wait.  In which case…….

An idea: Since the holidays (which we know can be a depressing time) are here, perhaps we can encourage older/elderly independent-living parents to get together with friends for one of the special days or evenings ahead. We might suggest, for example, their having Christmas eve dinner or New Years day brunch, lunch or dinner with a friend or friends.

We can collaborate with parents in deciding which friend(s) to invite along with finding a convenient restaurant if they wish. We can offer to phone our parent’s friend(s) then make the reservation. Perhaps we can even help with the transportation (after all, they carpooled us when we were children).

Our actions model caring behavior for our children. At some point in the future, we may hope our grown children will encourage and initiate for us.
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I’m now recalling New Years Day the year after Mother died. My husband and I were driving from L.A. to Dad’s condo in the desert, talking about the fact that it would have been my parents’ anniversary. We passed a shopping center…Trader Joe’s…thoughts of a small New Year’s Day reception at Dad’s to watch whatever Bowl game was on and liven things up. We quickly took the next off-ramp, bought frozen appetizers, an insulated bag, snacks, paper plates. Then back on the freeway.

Dad (age 91) warmed to the idea of having people in–even on a moment’s notice. (We’d do/done the major work.) And a few hours later we had 10 old people (no one declined) who enjoyed themselves–one even brought beautiful fruit from a large gift-box she assured us she could never finish by herself.

Connections with others is one of the three main factors in aging well, as we know. That said, does the  holiday season need to be depressing for independent-living,  isolated-feeling old people or can we make it another opportunity to help parents age well.


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