My mother will celebrate her 92nd birthday this coming April. She’s been an active and independent woman all her life, and has lived on her own and forged her own path for over 40 years (my parents divorced in 1974). She currently lives in an assisted living community, but for the past couple of years her memory has been fading, and the facility coordinator is now saying it may be time for Mom to move to “memory care” or another place where she can receive more direct care.
Mom is still ambulatory, gets herself to meals on time and feeds herself, dresses herself, and doesn’t require any assistance with hygiene other than her three weekly baths in the facility’s whirlpool tub. After spending time in the sun nearly her whole life, starting when she was a child growing up in southern California, she only recently developed basal cell carcinoma in three places. She had a heart attack nearly 20 years ago, and has diminished lung function (even though she never smoked) but otherwise is in good health for her age. She has outlived all of her peers and her immediate family even though she was the oldest child/cousin. It appears her body will outlast her memory.
I genuinely hope to live as long as my mother has, and stay as active as she has for most of her life. Mom was still traveling abroad when she was in her 80s, still taking math classes (she was a math and biology teacher), and still running a small craft business. Until a couple of years ago she always kept a garden. Other than going to the hospital to have her four children, she never had stayed overnight in a hospital until she fell and broke her hip in late 2014 and needed surgery. It’s been very difficult to see her struggle with memory issues, and unable to remember things that use to come so easily to her.
Mom comes from a time when many believed that medicine could solve any problem – it was reactive versus preventative. She was never particularly careful about her diet – she loved sweets and always ate too much salt, among other things. She was a human whirlwind, but never regularly exercised other than doing some not-too-strenuous walking. For all the time she spent in the sun, she never used sunscreen. She has lived with a family history of cancer, diabetes and heart disease hanging over her, and she has familial high cholesterol (which I inherited).
However, except for certain interludes, her life has been relatively stress free. She has kept her weight mostly under control. She has done what makes her happy. Up until the last five or six years, she still traveled all over. She loved seeing new things and having new experiences. She was always reading something, enjoyed doing jigsaw and other puzzles, kept up with her craft business, and loved watching the Denver Broncos play football. She found ways to help others or give her time and talents. All of these helped contribute to her longevity and quality of life.
My own goal for aging gracefully is to follow a modified “Mom Plan:” I am being careful about what I eat and making an effort to get more exercise. I’m more proactive about my health (and my skin!) and am going to try to not to have to rely on more and more medication as I age. I hope to still be traveling abroad when I’m in my 80s, and enjoying experiences with Brett, our children and grandchildren. I don’t ever want to lose a sense of wonder about the world, or refuse the opportunity to learn something new or have my mind changed about something. I want to continue on as a life-long learner, and keep my mind active every day with reading, writing, trying new things, going places, doing puzzles, staying connected with others, and keeping up with what’s going on in the world. Like Mom, I want to live as stress-free as possible, stay positive about life, and do the things that make me happy. I want to continue to give myself things to look forward to, set goals and figure out how to achieve those things. And, I want to remember every day all the many blessings that I have been given in this wonderful life.
Atul Gawande, in his book Being Mortal, posits that while we are not born pre-programmed for how long we will live, genetics doesn’t actually have all that much to do with longevity. Mom has lived a long time, as did her mother, but it’s no guarantee that I will. But, like my Mom, I intend to make the most of every day I’m given, and age as gracefully as possible.
Thank you, Mom, for everything.