Today is my grandmother’s birthday.
Many Happy Returns of the Day, Grandma Cook!
I want to take this opportunity to talk about how awesome it is to have elders in our lives who model healthy, engaged ways of growing older. I turn thirty this year, which means my grandmother has over fifty years’ experience on me when it comes to living in, and learning about, the world. I know a number of people her age who’ve checked out and are more or less just waiting to die. They aren’t interested in looking forward — or even simply looking around them at the world they exist in today. Instead, they’re looking back toward a previous golden age, fearful of the present and the future.
I realize there are many reasons to be frightened, and I don’t want to minimize the often overwhelming isolation we face as human beings when we are dealing with decreased mobility, changes in mental health, with the death of loved ones, with relocation and loss. Yet I also think there’s a place to celebrate those who show resilience, and who model for us ways of facing such challenges without simply folding up in retreat. And my grandmother has been one of those people in my life. In the last decade she’s faced major illnesses, the death of my grandfather and other loved ones, the relocation of a number of family members — and yet she continues to find ways to engage with the world, to be curious, caring, and active.
In the years before my grandfather died, my grandmother bought a new grand piano, often playing it in company with my grandfather who had decided to re-learn the oboe in his retirement years (not having played since he was in the Second World War). She also decided to learn watercolor painting and eventually developed a line of note cards featuring flowers and songbirds that she sells at a local stationary and gift shop.
Since my grandfather died she’s continued with her gardening and church work, as well as adopting a golden retriever, Addy, who keeps her company in the home she shared with my grandfather and in which they raised their children. She’s an avid fan of the men’s and women’s basketball at Hope College (her alma mater as well as mine) and cheered me on when I wrote the Board of Trustees about institutional discrimination against queer students. When Hanna and I began dating, she sent me a heartfelt letter celebrating the fact that I had found someone to move through the world with, and with whom I could express love. Her vision of Christianity is one that makes whole-hearted room for loving relationships of many kinds.
When you look toward your older years, what sort of person do you hope to become? Do you have any particular skills or activities you think to yourself, “when I grow old, I shall …” or, “my third career shall be …”? I often joke, more than half seriously, that my third or forth career shall be as a midwife or doula (I realize that one doesn’t necessarily have to be an elder to offer birth support, but it does seem like a vocation that would be difficult to balance with my current work and family life). As an older person, I can see myself more easily integrating the erratic hours of birth support into my daily life. Perhaps this is a fantasy, but it is part of how I imagine building a life as an older person.
What are your hopes and imaginings for lifelong learning and your future life as an elder?