Aging With Grace, Dying With Love

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt MotherAndDoll2

Many moons ago, before the birth of my daughter in California, my mother and father made the trip from the other coast to bestow their approval on our new home. They came bearing love gifts and rituals, tales of family who dared be absent, the comforts of a senior generation. We sat down to dine on the opportunity—the tumbling repartee and laughter that is our wont. We ate and gossiped and reminisced, and then did it some more.

Those who know our family, would not find it odd that we also determined the visit a fitting moment to explore the far end of life’s spectrum: Mother, a positively inveterate social worker, and I took a class on aging and family.

The course was interesting, fun, poignant, challenging, great fodder for dinner table conversation—and ultimately useless.

It did not result in our soundly preparing for my parents’ oldth and eventual demise—our own error. We did not follow the course’s wise counsel to create a financial plan for their elder years, to plot a rational and sensitive path to a final home where physical and emotional wellbeing—and independence—could be best assured within their projected means and sensibilities. We did not define roles and responsibilities suitable for each offspring to take on as our parents’ capabilities diminished.

Oh, we knew what we should do, the right and reasonable things necessary for when that distant time comes, we even gave them a nod or two, but we just never got around to doing them. Life was far too busy for us all to lend thought to aging and death.

And then Father up and died—first!—surprising everyone, most of all Mother.

MotherCollegeWell-entrenched in congenital math anxiety and her generationally ascribed role, she was not disposed to address their small investment accounts and tangible assets. She was not prepared to manage the documentation of life that had been Father’s bailiwick. She was sure as hell not ready to be alone.

And so, we have gradually cobbled together a semblance of a care system, the nearest offspring providing Mother a nest, the analytic one taking on things financial and legal, the others providing counsel and encouragement. It is not enough, it is imperfect, it is riddled with ill-defined expectations and sibling dynamics, but it is imbued with love.

Still, for all the eager voices in our family, we are stunningly silent about the inevitable truths that roar around us. Amidst the roiling waves of emotion, we harbor concerns and conceits, doubts and distrusts; fear and sadness are muzzled. And the gossip that would entertain us at dinner is spun into pain. The mourning of loss, current and foreseen, is silenced with discomfort. Questions become accusations. Sorrow becomes depression. Goodwill becomes dismay.

Yet life persists.

We bumble along, and babies are born. Hurts are soothed. Marriages are made. Familial waters are calmed, until the next storm. And our younger generation chalks it all up to humorous family dysfunction, overlooking the quiet shadow of age that gently embraces their own parents.

And what of my progeny, an only child? Have I set upon her the prospect of an unbearable burden of elder care? Or can we do any better?

It's possible.

Mother2008

With the lessons of many moons ago and those of today, our plan can be made, falteringly at first, but surely with good intent, perchance with the realization denied my parents. Things will go in my getting-old file—advance directives, wills, a reminder to toss my ashes on the vegetable garden. And I hope my daughter and I can ultimately give voice to our aging, the celebration of life entertainingly-lived, the acknowledgement of limitations and gifts, the acceptance that we each come to an end, one way or another, but preferably with grace and love intact, however imperfect, and the tumbling repartee and laughter that is our wont—and that, in our oldth, makes us clench our kegels.

Love, K-B