We have a neighbor that is well into her 80s. We are always conflicted as to how involved we should get. We have had a couple of good conversations with the lady and have learned lots about her life. Every time we have offered help she has been polite to decline it and seems to be a private person even though she has shared some of her life story with us. The conflict comes from both Bea and I coming from a society where our elders were not just part of our lives, they were integral parts of our formation as human beings. Elders are not just respected but rather revered. I cannot forget the first time I went to an “old folks home” back in Colombia when I was a kid and thinking about how it was like an orphanage but for older people. I never imagined that in the society that I would become an adult, a “retirement community” was not the exception but pretty close to the rule.
This society is geared towards individualism and youth. Every day industries promote the fountain of youth and how people are living longer, but also how obsessed people are with staying young. The 40s are the new 30s and so on. Many people are scared of getting older in all societies, but getting older in the U.S. can be right down terrifying.
My paternal grandfather passed away in 2006 and my maternal grandfather is getting older each day. My Mom and I have talked about how my grandfather’s light is not shinning as bright as it used to. This is the man that taught me how to play chess and was always very assertive and successful business man. Now his days are full of anxiety about his illness and all he seems to look forward to now are his yearly trips to Colombia to escape the winter. The cold that to him is killing him might be related more to the coldness of this society has towards the elder rather than the temperature on the thermometer. He would gladly spend the rest of his life back in Colombia, but my grandma who is over a decade younger than him wants to be here where all of our family is.
Many of the elderly people that I have spoken to here in the U.S. fear not being mobile. First is the loss of their driving privileges and then not being able to get around their own house. I constantly hear on the TV about reverse mortgages and think of how different a house is looked at in the two cultures. One side of me does not see the advertised promise of financial fredom or security promised by the announcers but rather a way for someone else to profit from someone’s life’s work. Both families back in Colombia have several properties that have either been adquired by one generation and are now being passed to the next.
My Mom in the other hand has it set on her head that she will be glad to not be a burden and be put in a nursing home if the need ever arrives. She has embraced the pace of this country of constantly moving and cannot imagine neither my sister or I having to take care of her in any way. Maybe some of the innate independent nature in me comes directly from her genes, but both Bea and I are very family driven and would not hesitate to live with our parents and take care of them. Even today, if I had the chance to go back to Colombia and live with Bea’s Mom in the same household it would be wonderful. I have enjoyed every second I have spent in conversation with her and love her wise words of advice.
We are getting older and more of our friends are having to deal with the decision of putting a parent or a grandparent in assisted living. We know it is not an easy decision and in many cases not even their decision, but something that the last generation had already planned on doing. I am sure something similar is happening in Colombia now and more and more families are joining the society of disconnect from the last generation. Gaps seem to be getting bigger all over and talking to your elders about your problems and going for advice is being replaced by paying a “professional” for advice.
I am not sure what my future will bring when it comes to my old age. I am lucky that I have Bea to grow old with, and if we are blessed with kids hopefully also see them grow up. I am not sure if I will be alive in 30 years and ready to retire to a community with other people my age or not. I am not sure if the attitudes will change and by then 60s will be the new 40s. I do hope that the next generation does not look to us as a burden but rather a source for wisdom from experience. I know I wish that I had spent more time with my grandparents and now being close to family again I see the importance and benefits of having that connection.