It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"I'm the Oldest Person I Know."

I'm 95 years old, and you know what? That's old.

I'm the oldest person I know.

That's Grandma. As a kid, I can't say we got along. There were some strong opinions involved, some -- shall we say -- incidents. Like the time she called my mother from 100 miles away insisting that we wear sweaters "because it's cold over here." Or the time she entered my room while I was away and straightened it up "just a bit." I wanted to kill her.

Grandma has always held strong opinions about everything. She was into raw foods and organic produce long before the rest of California discovered them. She firmly believed, and continues to believe, that fluoridated water is evil reincarnate, and that women who do not make efforts to "look smart," (that is, dress well and apply make-up) are doing humanity some sort of general disservice.

Through the years, her letter-writing has had me in stitches. There's the time I wrote her from summer camp to report on my recent swimming lessons, and received a reply that she, too, was learning to swim. At age 70. "But," she confided, "I don't like to put my face in the water." (I could relate to that).

And not one of my fellow campmates received, as I did, letters signed with the valuable but ill-timed advice, "Remember to eat lots of organic lettuce!" I neglected to return her counsel with the sad but true reality that at camp we were lucky to get some limp iceberg with our suspiciously-tinted beef patties and soggy fries.

This year, my grandmother is, as she puts it, "really feeling my age." Everything is a process; getting dressed, preparing meals, even -- I assume -- going to the bathroom, although this has yet to come up in conversation. A couple of months back she fell down in her kitchen and, in typical Grandma style, refused to tell anyone about it for fear she'd be dragged to the hospital for endless tests (eventually that is exactly what happened). She's okay now, having rested at home for a short time, after which she systematically rejected the help of every home care nurse and social worker available.

During her recuperation she refused to go outside, for fear she would be spotted using a walker by one of her fellow retirement community-neighbors in her, and subsequently be labeled an old lady.

* * * * *

The other day I asked Grandma for her insights about aging.

Grandma: I don't like old people. Even myself....I have to listen to myself all the time, and I get tired of it. I'm always trying to change things.

Me: What do you mean by that?

G: I would realized what I'm doing, and change what I'm thinking, and reject it.

Me: Like what?

G: Like walking like a duck. I reject it. Like being critical about people. Things really aren't that important, you know? I'm trying to resist some of the earmarks of old people.

I once read in an old copy of New Scientist, a British popular science weekly, that neurological imaging at different stages of life has shown that older people have a tendency to "mellow out" over time, not getting as worked up neurologically about those little things that get under the skin of most the rest of us. In other words, over time, older people gain perspective, at the most basic neurological level.

Sometimes, after a frustrating conversation with Grandma, my family will say, "Oh, she's acting like an stubborn old person again." But I'm not so convinced. No question, she's still stubborn, way beyond the rest of us, but she's always been like that. If anything, she's calmed down a bit over the years.

She's not acting old -- she's acting Grandma.

If you'd asked me as a child whether my grandmother would ever mellow out, I wouldn't have answered positively. I wouldn't describe her as mellow now. Despite her refusal to receive help, for the most part her obstinate behavior benefits her. She's already lost some of her mobility, much of her eyesight, and most of her friends to old age. But when she tells me she's gained a new perspective on herself and others, I believe her. She just wants her body, and her life, to stay just the way they are. Don't we all?

(Get to know Grandma a bit better in Imagine the Alternatives and At Least I Can Explain Two Tin Cans).

Keep the balance,



Batya said...

She sounds great and older than my father, who's 89 and living with us.

A Living Nadneyda said...

That sounds like a real challenge to your family. I wish you strength.

Lady-Light said...

It is so hard, growing old...may your Grandma live to 120, no worse than she is now; you have the zchut of having her with you; my parents died many years ago (my mother died before my grandfather did). I did not have that privilege of having parents/grandparents with me for a long time; on the other hand, I didn't have the difficult task of caring for's a double-edged sword...

s. cohen said...

thank you for a smile and a perspective on aging. my 95 year old mother in law whom i love dearly would get along well with you granmother, or not, as the case may be. but they are two of the same kind. nice to know there are others out there