Friday, June 10, 2005
Life beyond downsizing
We assembled once again at our college on the Hudson River for another class reunion, marveling at the "significant" number of years since graduation. Our small class of 120 women has always been cohesive and a remarkable 50% (of surviving members) returned to campus, some from as far away as Switzerland. Decades disappeared as we sat long into the night sharing our stories.
While our personal histories are different, as an age-matched cohort our stories are also remarkably similar. We are the first "sandwich" generation, caring for both our children and our parents. In most cases — as we are women of a certain age — our children are now self-sufficient, but our parents, who never expected to live those extra decades into their eighties and nineties or more, are a large part of our lives — and a very large part of our worries. They are a generation which prided itself on working hard, living frugally, and staying self-sufficient.
Mary's story is not unusual. Her 88-year-old widowed father is in relatively good health, but getting unsteady on his feet. He insists on living in his own house and continues to drive. Since he is not able to take care of all his own needs, Mary, who works part-time, drives some 50 miles twice a week to bring some food and help with household maintenance. With driving each visit takes about four hours, but her father complains that he is alone a lot, which he is due to his choice of living alone. The rest of the week Mary worries that he might trip and fall and not remember all of his medications. There is a reputable assisted-living complex in the area, but dad won't hear of it. As many in this rugged older generation, he equates assisted living with the dreaded "nursing home," the place where unloved relatives are sent to die.
What have we learned from our parents? We have learned that somewhere in our eighties, even if our health and clarity of mind remain good, independent living is unwise, or impossible. If we want to control our lives in the decades way after retirement, we must plan for assistance with basic life activities, freeing us from daily household worries. And we need companionship. Assisted living is the next life cycle after downsizing. We need to help our children care for us, but without burdening them excessively during their very busy decades of commitment to career, family, friends and community. Of course, we do need their companionship, their ear and counsel with planning and decision-making, and their role in continuing the cycles of family life and traditions.
From a safe distance of two decades, the need for these late-life transitions is clear. But accepting one's own loss of independence is much more difficult. Will I be ready to give up my home and my driver's license at the right time?
I note that there is to be a Pet Show on June 25 at Old Home Day. Much as I would like to enter our English springer spaniel, Phoebe, I am afraid it will be impossible after her performance at obedience school, where she failed to graduate. It was a shock and a humiliation to the whole family, especially as she started out so well.
The classes were held in the loft of a barn where 14 dogs of various breeds and personalities were to be trained by 14 owners, similarly of various breeds and personalities. The instructor was a martinet, quick to admonish both dogs and owners for any lapses. The initial exercise was "heel," requiring the dog to trot along at master's side as we marched around the loft. Phoebe, widely known for her affability, fell right in with this exercise, figuring that she might as well come along and see what was going to happen. She did this so obediently and so reliably that the instructor asked if she had had prior training. We were all quite elated at her early success.
From this point onward, however, Phoebe's performance deteriorated. Another exercise required the 14 dogs to sit in a row on one side of the room while their masters crossed the room and then called them one by one with the command, "Come!" Each owner would get two dogs — his own and Phoebe, delighted that a stranger was interested in her. Even when, after 13 false starts, she came to me, she couldn't get it quite right. Having come, the dog was supposed to sit and then to obey the "Down!" command, a signal to lie down. Phoebe would move to the lying position all right, but in doing so would scoot forward enough to place her chin on my shoes, a grievous act according to the instructor.
These failings could be regarded as mere peccadilloes. More serious in the eyes of the instructor was Phoebe's being late to class because she'd spend about half an hour barking at a porcelain cat nailed to a tree outside the classroom. In my opinion, other dogs did much worse things. For example, Shawn the German shepherd couldn't take being shouted at over and over and finally broke away from his master and climbed into his mistress' lap, a shameful act that only illustrated the dog's lack of character. Or Peter the Airedale. He observed, as did we all, that during each class a sinister-looking cat would appear and stroll around, just daring a dog to make a move. I never knew whether an assistant to the instructor introduced this cat as a test or the whole affair was the cat's idea. In any case, Peter eventually decided that being taunted in this way was more than he could bear, and he took off after the cat, who leapt down the stairwell. So did Peter, though he didn't leap so much as tumble with a great crash to the bottom of the steps. He was unhurt and seemed rather pleased with himself; the instructor was not.
On the last night only certain dogs were summoned to participate in the graduation exercises. Phoebe was not among them, though Shawn and Peter were, showing what I can only interpret as rank prejudice on the part of the instructor. I hope this makes it clear why Phoebe cannot be entered in the Pet Show. Two failures in the span of a few months would be too hard on her psyche. And mine.
© 2005 The