Passing the generational baton
This month, my honorary aunt, Anita, passed away at age 95. Sadly, she developed Alzheimer’s in her early 90’s, and her last years were spent in assisted living. She was the last of my family and friends who were members of the “greatest” generation. These men and women lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. They had cores of steel. My kids and I referred to my mom and her women friends as the “amazing ladies”. And, they were. Anita was the last one standing.
Now, I am the older generation.
It’s a sobering thought. Probably the hardest part is that I can’t talk to them, get their advice, or simply vent. I miss these amazing ladies and wish they were still here. The men passed away long ago. These women had insight and a unique perspective. They lived through social and political upheaval. They invented the concept of resilience.
I drank deeply of their older age wisdom.
Their generation set a high bar for us newbies. I hope I can be as helpful to my children as they were to me. They were wonderful role models—as grandparents and as parents to adult children. They didn't intrude (much)—and they were always available. They developed deep relationships with their grandchildren too. I hope to do the same.
I always felt they were my safety net if I found trouble. Without them, I feel more alone.
Of course, I’m on deck for the same inevitable outcome of old age. It doesn't frighten me. I had an unusual experience a couple of years ago, that seemed to reflect my feelings about death. Flying home, the plane had the worst turbulence that I’d ever experienced. Standing passengers were knocked to the ground and the plane lost altitude suddenly. Passengers screamed and the pilot didn't come on the PA to reassure us. I felt strangely calm—I thought that if this was the end—so be it. I reached over to hold Diane’s hand, thinking that I wanted to be hand in hand with her if we were coming to the end of our lives. I was surprised at my reaction. It wasn’t what I expected.
My parents, aunts and uncles, and their friends taught me a lot about facing the challenges of aging too. They didn’t complain and had an accepting attitude towards illness and physical changes. When my father was diagnosed with lung cancer at 86 he commented wryly— “Well, at my age I’m sitting duck for getting something like this”. They were dignified about the indignities of older age. They weren’t afraid to make decisions when they needed to, even if they were afraid. My mom moved into an independent living center from a retirement home when she was 91, even though the prospect of moving was overwhelming.
As they grew much older, they listened to my brother and I. They let us take care of them when they needed our care. They trusted and respected us. I told both of my daughters that I plan to listen to them when they have recommendations to make to me. When they tell me to stop driving, I will hand over the keys. My parents weren’t so accommodating.
Not only did I learn from their good example, but I also learned from their mistakes too. They were far from perfect. But now that they’re gone, it’s easy to let go of my disappointments and just remember their good points.
On this eve of becoming an oldster, I realize that someday my children will be the older generation, as I am today. And then, my grandchildren will become the older generation when it’s their time, as will my great-grandchildren.
I hope that I can pass on some of what I’ve learned from the older generation—now gone. And I hope that I also have something to offer the younger generation too that they will pass on when they receive the baton of older age.