The joy of aging. The joy of caregiving. Recently I was asked to deliver a speech on one of those topics. “Or both,” suggested Margie at Maui Adult Day Care Centers. “We would like you to give an inspirational talk at our annual board dinner.” She said I could take a couple of days to think it over before she needed my decision for the printed program.
The next few days were more stressful than I care to admit. I enjoy public speaking and usually have little difficulty coming up with something to say, regardless of the topic. If my hosts ask me to bring my alter ego, Tita, that’s even easier. Tita relates everything to Spam musubi; she’s lectured on parenting, public service and pidgin, of course, using that analogy. But this occasion called for greater decorum, and I didn’t feel qualified to speak as an expert on either topic.
Although, I admit, I’ve reached the age where a few (OK, most) stores and restaurants will give me a 10 percent discount or waive the sales tax, I don’t yet have much firsthand experience with joyful aging. (And here, I’d like to point out that I had to show my ID in order to get the senior discount.) Similarly, while I’ve shared in the care of my elderly grandmother and my cancer-stricken father, I’ve never served as a primary caregiver for more than a few days at a time.
My mother, on the other hand, has plenty of personal experience in both areas. It occurred to me that she has indeed found joy in aging and in her years of caregiving as well. I called Margie and told her I’d be happy to speak on both topics, using Mom as the prime example and inspiration.
One of the tips put forth by Dan Buettner in his book “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” is to wake up each day with purpose. As young adults, we devote our time and energy to our children or our careers. All too soon, the kids leave the nest, we retire from our jobs, we lose many of the things that gave our lives purpose. At that point in our lives, it’s important to redefine our purpose, to find activities that are not just enjoyable, but meaningful.
At 92, Mom is active and alert, filling her days with volunteer work and social activity. She logs 20 to 30 hours per week volunteering for MADCC and Kaunoa Senior Services’ Congregate Nutrition Program. Her social life is busier than mine, and she charms everyone she meets. Regular readers of this column know about her parasailing, motorcycling, canoe-paddling and roller-coasting adventures. And her three tattoos, obtained on her 83rd, 86th and 90th birthdays. In her golden years, she is enjoying life as much as she did in her youth, perhaps even more.
After my father’s death, she served as the primary caregiver for my grandmother — her mother-in-law — for over 10 years, until Obaban passed shortly before her 105th birthday. People said Mom was a saint, taking care of her mother-in-law, by herself, for so long, but she brushed off the praise, saying that it was no big deal. She had promised my father she would care for Obaban, and she viewed it as an honor, not a burden or obligation.
Her patience and kindness were acknowledged and appreciated by my grandmother, even as Obaban’s dementia progressed. Near the end of her life, when she didn’t always recognize her children or grandchildren, Obaban still, every so often, expressed her gratitude and wonderment that her daughter-in-law was always there for her.
While I hope that it will never be necessary, I would welcome the opportunity to do the same for my mother. Thanks to her example, I see aging as an adventure, and caregiving as a privilege.
The joy of aging comes from love of life, and is rooted in passion. The joy of caregiving comes from love for others, and is rooted in compassion. Mom has found both, and in doing so, has ensured that her daughter will, too.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.