Declaring Independence from Ageism

I would like to dedicate this post to my husband’s super awesome Nan. She loved the 4th of July and her family would have reunions over the 4th to celebrate her birthday and her favorite holiday. 2015 is the first year we celebrate the 4th without her, as she passed this past October. Unfortunately, my husband and I couldn’t be with them in New Jersey this year to celebrate, and we are really missing the family this holiday.

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Nan opening birthday gifts at her 80th birthday tea party

Nan was super awesome for many reasons. She raised 7 kids (plus 3 step children), held multiple jobs (and owned her own business, even after “retirement”), was very social, was very welcoming and accepting of those she met, had a great sense of humor, loved to sing and dance, and always added color and spice wherever she went. She really was one in a billion.

One year, my husband and I stayed at Nan’s house during the reunion. Nan and I were both a bit of night owls and one night we stayed up past 3am watching a “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” marathon on TV. And had a few highballs 🙂 She was so much fun to chat with and this is probably the only time she and I had alone time together. It was a lot of fun and a memory I hope I get to keep forever.

Nan also is the first person I have personally known whose dementia was reversible. A few years ago, the family started asking me about what they could do for her as her memory and eyesight were declining. We tried to come up with ideas for large clocks in the home, larger markers on the stove and oven, etc. Eventually, they found her a great community to move into. And she quickly became one of the community favorites – even being voted resident of the month and on the welcoming committee 🙂 Her short term memory continued to decline and the family was glad that she was in an appropriate place to get care. I remember my mother-in-law telling me how she loved telling Nan that Nathan and I were getting married, because it was new and happy news each time they talked 😉

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Nan, in the red, at the Mardi Gras party

Looking back, I don’t remember if I ever asked which type of dementia she was diagnosed with. As far as I recall, there wasn’t talk of a specific type or treatment, and it was assumed that it was due to advanced age (she was in her mid-80s). I still kick myself for not asking more about it… About 2 weeks before our wedding last October, she had a fall and was taken to the hospital. Dehydration was the cause. While in the hospital, she had a stroke and the family was preparing to say their goodbyes. Family and friends rallied around The Nan, taking shifts and making sure someone could visit her every day, help with eating, etc. During the workup, they found that her potassium levels were very low and that this was the cause of her dementia symptoms. They got to work alleviating that and she was doing really well in rehabilitation.

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Nan dancing with grandson, Nathan, at her daughter Joanne’s wedding (2006)

Nan, being the little firecracker that she was, made great strides in her recovery and was released from the hospital. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, she had another stroke and went back in to the hospital. She wasn’t the same Nan, and she was making it clear to the family that she had lived a wonderful life and was ready when the end would come. It was hard for all of us. Nan was the matriarch of the family and so loved. Again, the family rallied around The Nan to keep her comfortable and also kept the rest of us updated. My husband was able to fly to New Jersey for the funeral at the end of October and be with his family.

While I want to say a lot about Nan, I think that her eulogy, written and given by her step-daughter Kathy, is a beautiful description of our Nan:

Of course, the predominant colors in the picture of Nan’s life will be her favorites – red, white and blue.

Red, for her spunky, feisty, lively spirit.  Red, for her strength and determination.  Red, for her vibrant good looks.  Red, for her passion and love of life.  Red, for her love of family that ran as deep as the blood in her veins. Red, for her infectious, girlish  laughter.  Red, for the smile on her lips.   Red for her heart – as loving and giving as any that has ever beaten.

White, for her simplicity and humility.  White, for her gentleness and childlike acceptance of any and all things that life brought her way.  White, for the purity of her soul, filled with God’s grace at baptism and the light she let shine by putting that grace into action as a true Christian woman.   White, for her sparkle and charm.  White, for the black and white old movies that she loved to watch.    White, for her unencumbered, gypsy spirit – she traveled light and never wanted to put anyone to any trouble – often saying, “I can sleep on the head of a pin.”

Blue, for her loyalty and dependability.  Blue for her small town, blue collar roots and work ethic.  Blue for her sense of joy and happiness in life, like the bluebird of happiness figurine that she gave me years ago and which perches on my kitchen windowsill even today as a reminder of her cheerfulness and optimism. Blue, for the skies that she always brought to others even when the clouds appeared.  Blue, for the depths of the ocean – that’s how deep was her love and devotion to her family.  True blue as a friend to all – in fact, no one can remember Nan ever taking a dislike to or saying a bad word about anyone!  Blue for her steeliness of character and her ability to lay down the law – she knew instinctively about tough love before it ever became a popular phrase and knew how to deeply love the person while not enabling destructive behaviors.

So, we’ve filled in the colors and yet still something is missing.  Could it be that a painting is not quite the right metaphor for Nan’s  life?  After all, paintings, as beautiful as they may be, are only 2 dimensional and are meant to hang motionless on walls and be admired by onlookers.  Nan had so many dimensions, was constantly active and involved in all aspects of life.  In some ways, she was ageless – as her granddaughter Kristin said this week, it was hard to imagine that one day her life would end – so alive and youthful and energetic was she.

As I searched for a more accurate metaphor for Rita’s life, I thought about my memories of her, of all of our times together, of all the stories I’ve heard from her family, of all the pictures and Facebook postings, of all the shared experiences and I was reminded of how much Rita looked forward every year to the Fourth of July – this was her favorite holiday and she celebrated and embraced it more than Christmas or any other day of the year.  For Nan, July Fourth meant flag waving, fireworks, food, family reunions  and, of course – THE PARADE!

That’s when I realized that rather than a lifeless painting, Rita’s life has been one big grand parade.  A parade where she was not a spectator on the sidelines, but a parade  where she participated with enthusiasm, energy and joy and invited everyone to join her. A parade with marching bands, and color guards and floats and Mardi Gras beads and fire trucks and small town kids with decorated bicycles – a parade where they throw candy and salute the flag and do the mummer’s strut.   A parade that sometimes had rain delays, but was never washed out.   A parade where sometimes the marchers got out of step, or played a sour note, but that only made us more real and dear to her heart.  A parade where everyone was welcome.  The only thing that the parade of Rita’s life did not have was a judge’s stand – because as her daughter Joanne recently observed when she posted a picture of her mom arm in arm with a homeless man at a shelter, “My mom loved everyone with no judgements and no reservations.  Her heart was full of love and compassion.”

Nan was an independent woman. She was a strong woman. She was a kind person. She was a role model to many. She also taught her family and those around her a lot about aging – that older adults can have a lot of energy, interests, hobbies, and life left to live. Happy Independence Day, Nan ❤

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Nan wanted a picture of herself in her garden the last 4th of July my husband and I were in New Jersey (2011)

This article below comes to us from ChangingAging.org, a fantastic website and movement founded by Dr. Bill Thomas, an expert in elderhood and geriatric medicine. You may have seen him in documentaries about aging and dementia before. He’s also the founder of the Eden Alternative and the Green House Project. He is a mover and a shaker and challenging the world to change the way we view and treat aging.

Declaring Independence From Ageism

Ashton Applewhite

Q: How do we convince people to focus on this issue when there are so many other urgent causes to sign up for, and so much good TV to watch (i.e. distractions)?

Far be it from me to pry people away from their TV sets! My answer is pretty abstract: because we’re never going to make the most of our longer lives, personally and politically, if we don’t challenge entrenched ageism. As I wrote in this recent post, we can talk about housing & healthcare policies till the cows come home, but as long as they’re implemented within a society that perpetuates and profits from age discrimination, we’ll never have fundamental change—let alone achieve age equality.

Q: The people who need their consciousness raised the most are going to be the most reluctant to participate. How do we get them involved?

We can’t. It’s like the old joke about how many shrinks it takes to change a lightbulb (just one, but it has to really want to change). And not only is it hard to change, it’s even more so when it comes to confronting internalized bias. No one wants to admit they’re prejudiced, even though everyone is. The good news is that an awful lot of people do understand that change has to start with internal awareness. (Be the change you want to be). Activists, therapists, everyone in AA, people interested in self-actualization, and so on.

We start by creating and joining groups and sharing our experiences, in person and online, in any way that feels comfortable. Eventually, people will mobilize around specific issues, the way women’s groups in the 1970s joined picket lines, organized protests, and began getting media attention.

Q: How long have you been doing this and what’s come out of your consciousness raising group?

Just starting out myself; my CR group will kick off at the end of this month. I know a lot about ageism but relatively little about other people’s experience of it, which will inform my work and deepen my understanding of all the forms it can take and the damage it does.

Q: You mention confidentiality is important, but don’t we also need to speak out and take action based on what comes out of the consciousness raising?

Yes! But the group has to be a safe space for people to tell personal stories about ageist stuff they did or thought, or how age makes them feel ugly or vulnerable or whatever, and know that those stories will stay in the room.

Q: How do we maintain momentum?

By promoting the booklet, and by working to raise awareness of ageism on every front. Confronting ageism should be on the agenda of every aging-related conference and on the “masthead” of every aging-related website and on the policy agenda of every aging-related organization. When we talk about leveling the playing field for women or people of color, sexism and racism are central to the discourse. Likewise, educating ourselves about what ageism looks like and the damage it does is fundamental to any conversation about aging in America, and what we can do to improve our personal and collective experiences. 

My anti-ageism manifesto will be published this fall—email ashton@thischairrocks.com or follow my ThisChairRocks Facebook page for more info—and it will wake a lot of people up. Of course, only a small subset of readers will be radicalized, but just starting to see ageism around you (and in you) is a critical first step. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle. And the paradoxical benefit of ageism being still so unexamined is that “aha” moments are everywhere

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One thought on “Declaring Independence from Ageism

  1. Pingback: A more recent discrimination: Old Age | From guestwriters

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