A personal series on living and learning in a multigenerational household. Part three.
About a year ago I moved in with an 85-year-old woman—my mother-in-law, Betty. At the agency, we have a lot of experience marketing to and connecting with the senior market. But this one’s personal. Instead of talking about all the facts, figures, and data we have about how seniors at various ages make decisions and what media they consume, I’m going to try to make these posts personal and real. Yes, a datapoint of one. Not a fictionalized account-planner persona—but an episodic story about what it’s like for me, my wife Helen, and Betty to be living together under one roof.
To begin let’s just get it out of the way—in spite of some serious health issues and physical mobility challenges, Betty has a pretty good life living with us either up north at the lake during the spring, summer and fall or sitting on her perch looking out over the Atlantic Ocean in Florida the rest of the time.
The routine can get, well, routine.
My wife Helen makes it all work. It starts with planning meals, clearing a seamless path through each day, cajoling Betty along to come out for lunch or go outside to break her routine. One glass of wine is enjoyed every evening—a regularly scheduled event we all look forward to. It is de rigueur and based on an unnamed doctor’s orders from years ago who told Betty that she should have a glass of red wine every night. She watches boats, surfers, fishermen, beach walkers, dolphin, even the occasional rare right whale and her calf pass by her window on the world outside. She has visitors, cousins who stop by, a wonderful home health aide who spells my wife every once in a while for a 1/2 day or two and gives Betty a new face and friendly conversation with a delightful Hungarian accent and sense of humor. In short, when someone asks my wife if she has retired, she usually responds that she has stopped working in advertising and PR after 30 years to open a single unit, personalized skilled nursing facility for one dedicated client.
But even with all the extra attention, personal care, meds sorted and tracked, meals carefully planned to keep her delicate ecosystem on an even equilibrium. As much as Betty has it good—there’s also an inarguable downside.
The loss of freedom affects everyone.
Getting old, losing mobility, losing friends, losing family—all take their toll. But the biggest struggle of all is the loss of freedom. Betty faces it, and someday we’re all going to face it.
I now know what makes a prisoner want to crawl through swamps and sewer pipes to get a taste of life outside the walls. Whenever we can convince Betty to go out for a lunch trip and she’s feeling up to it—it’s a bright spot in her day that she cherishes for weeks until the next outing. Each excursion, even just a ride in the car to see “new” people, or visit a doctor—is equal parts exhilaration and exhaustion. It takes a toll on Betty and tuckers her out for a couple of days until she’s rested and rejuvenated.
She used to live for lunch with her lady friends every week—but now with most of them gone it’s up to us to roust her and prod her to go out to lunch or go outside. The excitement isn’t the food, or the bourbon on the rocks, but rather the change of scenery and the stimulant of being outside and alive and with people.
She once told me that when I was complaining about the incessant banality of daytime TV—that she remarked, “you have no idea how horrible it is to sit and watch TV all day.”
So we mix it up at times—put on some Sinatra on Pandora or just turn off all the TVs for some “quiet time” listening to the crashing of the waves.
I know she’ d like to be out every day for lunch, shopping, driving her car—but none of that is possible anymore.
Which is why and how I explain some of the anger and resentment she feels about us and others who can still get up and walk outside on our own.
We are free. Freedom, in the fullest sense of that word, really is a special right and privilege. Learn to enjoy it, savor it, celebrate it–every day while you can.