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Aging Better With a Little Help From Our Friends

Recalling lessons learned from the experts

In the shallow end of the pool, a mother encourages her toddler to put her head underwater and blow bubbles. “You did it!” the mother crows. “I’m proud of you.” All smiles, the little girl dunks her head again.

Our parents teach us to say our names, use a spoon, dress ourselves, cross a street, put our heads underwater.

Suddenly I wonder: Who teaches us to grow older, to make the most of time when more years are behind us than ahead?

Turning away from the mother and child, I approach two women in the pool, women about my age. In the past, we have acknowledged one another with nods and smiles, but we have not exchanged names or engaged in conversation.

I blurt out, “Who taught you how to get old?”

Suddenly I wonder: Who teaches us to grow older, to make the most of time when more years are behind us than ahead?

One woman volunteers that she looked on the Internet for financial advice for retirees. The other, laughing, says, “Nobody.”

I go back to walking briskly in the water, back and forth across the pool, physical therapy that my 67-year-old body relishes. My mind is whirling. Who taught me how to grow old?

Lessons From Wise Friends

About 20 years ago, in my late 40s, I bought a condominium in suburban St. Louis, Mo. Many of my neighbors in the building were Jewish, most of them widows, all of them older than me by about two decades. They were kind women, wise women and good company. We laughed a lot together, and over the years, we became close.

With Rose, I shared many a rich conversation over a pot of tea and her delicious homemade mandelbrot, the Jewish version of biscotti. When cable TV service in the building failed at a crucial moment, I raced downstairs, where Betty and I turned on the tiny black and white TV in her kitchen to watch my two-minute appearance on Oprah.

Rae and I usually relied on one another for decorating tips, but the day I felt faint, she quickly came to my rescue. Thelma and I talked from time to time about breast cancer, an experience we shared, but she made it clear she preferred to tell me about her new skills on the computer or her watercolor class. I listened, and understood.

After Bebe moved from the condo to a senior residence, we worked together to help elect President Barack Obama. I knocked on doors in nearby neighborhoods; Bebe knocked on doors in her building, handing out Obama bumper stickers printed in Hebrew. Bebe’s instincts were correct. Never mind that most of the residents had given up driving — they wanted those bumper stickers.

‘Tell Me What I Need to Know’

From time to time, I would invite half a dozen or more of the women to my place for wine and cheese, gatherings I considered summit meetings with the experts. After catching up on one another’s news, I would say, “Tell me how to age well. Tell me what I need to know.”

Every time, the women were thrilled that I asked. Here is some of their advice:

  • Talk mostly about your life now, not about the past.
  • Travel while you still have the energy and the patience for it.
  • Adapt to change or don’t, but understand that everything changes.
  • Attend to physical ailments, but don’t obsess about them.
  • Wear your good jewelry every day.

Sylvia delivered that last pearl (sorry) of wisdom the day she put on her finest gold earrings and best bracelets and rings to take the elevator one flight up from her place to mine. In contrast, I had neglected to accessorize my jeans and sweatshirt.

“You look lovely,” I said, “but why go to all this effort, wear all this beautiful jewelry, just to come see me?”

Sylvia shrugged and replied, “If not now, then when?”

Over the years, my friends in the building told me about the best new restaurants in town and which ones to avoid. They spoke of being widowed once, twice, even three times. They talked about the process of discovering who they were as individuals when they were no longer part of a couple.

They always knew what was on sale at the mall. One also spoke of moving to a distant city to live closer to her grown children, and the challenges that presented. She had returned home, to live her last years in the company of lifelong friends.

Twice My Age, Yet a Contemporary

Still in the pool, still striding through the chest-deep water, I remember an important lesson in perspective.

When I was thirtysomething, a neighbor twice my age asked me to let the phone ring twice, hang up and then call back so she would know when I was trying to reach her. I asked why the subterfuge. Anita replied, “Because then I will know it’s you calling and not one of those old women from my church.”

Clearly, Anita didn’t want to be on any more church committees. Also, in spite of our age difference, she thought of me as her contemporary. I didn’t understand that then, but now I get it. On any given day, I identify as 36. Never mind that my son is 40.

Learning From Actions, Not Words

Anita was something of a surrogate mother for me. My mother died when I was 26, and though we loved one another deeply, we had not yet achieved a fully comfortable adult relationship. Still, one of the last things she did made a big impression on me.

My parents knew that my husband and I hoped to have a baby. At 57, Mom suddenly quit her job as a government clerk. “When the time comes,” she said, “I want to be a better grandmother, so I am enrolling in college.” Two months later, she died.

I watched my father mourn; so numb that he could not acknowledge my loss. He said so in the kitchen, the morning the ambulance took away my mother’s body.

“I can’t deal with this,” Daddy said. “You will have to take care of everything.”

Over the years, I watched him change. My funny, happy, generous father turned negative, cranky, inclined to say “no” much more often than not, even in response to my dinner invitations. Daddy died a decade after my mother.

Another decade passed before I realized his melancholy had taught me something important: You don’t get to decide what happens, but you do get to decide how to respond. Since then, when struggling with my own challenges, I try to stay positive, to choose “yes.”

A 6-year-old in the pool swims by, splashing water on my glasses. Opting for a “yes” response, I say to the boy, “You are a strong swimmer!” Kicking wildly, the boy swims to the other end of the pool. His dad beams. I find myself wondering whether the man’s parents are still alive, more people to smile at and cherish this boy.

Passing Down the Lessons

Almost four decades after caring for a baby of my own, my son and daughter-in-law gifted me with a grandson. I soon discovered I had forgotten all my diapering skills, I seemed incapable of wrapping the blanket in such a way that kept Max tucked in and I was awkward at putting him in his car seat.

However, as I bragged to anyone who had time to listen, I excelled at baby holding. I did a lot of that. Not long after the baby was born, I was sitting, holding him close, my arms around him.

When I started to stroke his tiny back, he relaxed, but I got goose bumps, shivered, experienced a visceral understanding that since time began, generations of women before me had held their grandbabies just so, rocked them and stroked their backs.

I could see — no, I could feel — my own maternal grandmother doing this to calm me, to help me fall asleep when I was new to the world. My mother did this for me, too, of course, and for a moment I mourned once again that she had not lived to hold her grandchild. Now every time I hug Max, I hug him on behalf of my mother and grandmother as well.

Now 30 minutes have passed, and it’s time to move from the pool to the hot tub, the hot water my reward for walking. Heading for the steps at the shallow end of the pool, I smile at the woman with the toddler, who by now is completely comfortable putting her head in the water.

“You did it!,” that mother had said.

And with the right instruction, we all can age better. Who taught you how?



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