Aging Alone

When my mother was in the final years of her life and suffering from dementia, she forgot the names of food and couldn’t tell us what she wanted to eat. But I remembered the meals she served us when I was growing up, so I prepared grilled cheese sandwiches, tuna salad, and sliced and salted avocado for her. But for those who don’t have children, who will remember their favorite foods when they’ve lost their memories?

After my father had a stroke and couldn’t read, talk coherently or play any of the three musical instruments he excelled at (harmonica, accordion, piano), I played for him, via Spotify, all the old familiar songs he and my mother sang when we were young, like “You Are My Sunshine” or “Red River Valley,” plus German polka music, his favorite. The music pierced through the foggy layers of his brain and got him to sing and tap his feet. Without children, who would remember the music that made him happiest?

Twelve million people over 65 in this country live alone (according to the Pew Research Center), and many in that group also are childless.  Unlike previous generations, many baby boomers did not have children, for various reasons, or are estranged from their children. My generation also had higher divorce rates than previous generations. All of this means a lot of seniors will have to navigate the hazards of getting older by themselves.

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Canceling Parents

In these times of polarization, it should be no surprise that it extends to families, even parents and children.  Especially as teenagers and young adults, parents and children can have fractious relationships, but apparently the situation has gotten worse.

An article on the BBC website recently cited the case of a man in his 30s who ended his relationship with his parents because he discovered they espoused white supremacy. He belongs to a support group of other young adults who find their parents’ political views abhorrent.

The article also cited a psychologist, author of a book about parent-child estrangement, who views this as a new phenomenon, a result of people “pursuing happiness and personal growth, and less on emphasizing duty, obligation or responsibility.”

It was a surprising twist to my own coming of age, when a whole generation of Baby Boomers alienated our parents with our political and cultural views. They didn’t understand our opposition to the Vietnam War or our support of black and women’s rights. They were upset at our street protests, the flag being burned, men’s long hair and our embrace of drugs and “free” sex.

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Here’s My Opinion, Like It or Not

In my father’s old age, he became fixated on the idea that the world would be a better place if everyone drove under 55 mph. He had read someplace that, above that speed, cars weren’t as efficient and wasted gas. Whenever he started railing against fast driving, my siblings and I rolled our eyes: There goes dad again.

He was full of opinions about what was wrong with the world and how to fix it, often embarrassing his children and wife. He made a habit of telling restaurant owners the music was too loud, which made his children cringe. Funnily enough, I now find myself complaining  about the same thing, as friends and I try to talk over the cacophony. 

I guess it’s inevitable that most of us turn into our parents as we get older, very certain about what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it. I realized I’m becoming one of those opinionated old people who writes letters to the editor; goes up to cars sitting in parking lots with their engines running and lectures the driver about befouling the air; reminds people that dogs aren’t allowed on this trail; and lectures total strangers on why they should not pick flowers in a public park.

Perhaps one of the advantages of old age is that we’re not threatening; the two women picking the flowers weren’t likely to slug me or even yell at me; more likely, they went back to their cars and laughed about the crazy old lady sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong.

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