A quarter of a century ago, my husband and I moved to Eugene, Oregon, to attend graduate school. Less than a week after our arrival, we were invited to dinner at the home of Jane and Bill Larson, an elderly couple.
The afternoon we spent with “Grandma and Grandpa Larson” taught us an important lesson about love. Like most grandparents, they adored their grandchildren. But their unlimited reservoir of love extended beyond their immediate family. They had learned to reach out to young families who moved into their ward and to be their “grandparents” away from home.
Their example made an indelible impression on the young couples they welcomed. “Grandpa Bill” chopped wood for the fireplace, and the woodsy smell from the chimney teased our noses each time we drove through the evergreens to their little home on the hill. “Grandma Jane” worked on quilts or rugs as she and her husband sat by the cozy fire on crisp evenings. Her sight was dimming, and his hearing was becoming less sharp. They often told friends, “Jane is the ears and Bill is the eyes on this team.”
For the Larsons, growing old appeared effortless—or at least free from anxiety. It was plain to see that they enjoyed each other and their later years, but we were too young then to think much about how they did it. Now that life has mellowed us, we wonder how to find such contentment ourselves. The experiences of those who have successfully met the challenges of aging have been instructive.
Failing health is a worry for many older people. Venice Hill, age seventy-one, has been on dialysis for kidney failure for more than two years. She meets each day with a sense of humor. “There are many down days,” she says, “but I am determined to find worth in life.”
Although health problems can slow a person down, Sister Hill maintains that organization can help one accomplish goals. “If you are organized,” she says, “you can do almost anything you want after retirement.”
Sometimes one spouse must care for a less physically able partner. Sister Hill’s husband, Kenneth, has had Parkinson’s disease since 1968. One challenge poor health brings, he says, “is that I’m often reduced to being an observer.” But despite his health problems, he reads the scriptures and the classics regularly.
Both Brother and Sister Hill say that patterns set earlier in their lives have helped them through their health setbacks. “He is a gentleman in every way,” says Sister Hill of her husband, “and has been so even-tempered through the discouragements of our long illnesses.”
More Time, Changing Responsibilities
Those who have enjoyed full, busy lives may feel unfulfilled after retirement. But if health permits, this can be the time for engaging in many new, varied activities. James and Imogene Wood’s retirement has given them the freedom to travel, visit distant family members, and attend local cultural events.
Service to others can also help fill any void retirement might bring. Brother and Sister Wood recently completed a mission to Chile. They were surprised with their ability to learn the language, and they feel that their service was valuable.
Brother Wood admits that retirement may require some adjustments in lifetime chores or habits. “We found it necessary to establish divisions of responsibility in our home once I was there all day,” he says. “Call it ‘turf’ if you want—kitchen, garden, cooking, and vacuuming are all areas we began to share when I retired.”
Home and Financial Management
Elderly people often have concerns about their homes. Pearl Fowler, age seventy-seven, was left alone after her husband died seven years ago. “It is the everyday decisions, the ones my husband used to make, that are my greatest burden,” she says.
“In the spring my trees and vines need pruning, my small garden must be planted, and the lawn mower and car need to be readied for summer use. In the fall the worries come in reverse—the garden needs to be cleaned up, the lawn mower stored, snow equipment readied, and the car winterized.”
Others express a problem common to many who have retired on fixed incomes—dwindling financial resources. Budgeting helps but only partly alleviates the strain. Here, as in managing a home, the elderly need help from family and friends who take a specific, week-to-week interest in helping them meet their challenges.
Whenever possible, elderly people enjoy maintaining their independence. But often, they must move from their homes in order to have adequate care.
For Beth and Bob Hendricks, the decision to invite George Lawrence, Beth’s 80-year-old widowed father, to live with them was made at a family council several years ago. Beth had grown up in a three-generation home: her grandmother had lived with her parents for some thirty years.
This arrangement has worked well. Brother Lawrence has made himself a part of the family in many ways. One is by helping the children with their homework. He also helps with family expenses such as food and utilities—and admits he feels good about being able to do so.
Brother Lawrence leaves discipline of the Hendricks children entirely to their parents. “When a child has left a room messy, Dad will ask me, ‘Is that one of the children’s responsibilities?’ and leave it for me to handle,” Beth says.
In addition to his life with his children and grandchildren, Brother Lawrence has many interests away from home. He is a temple worker and participates in ward activities and social events with others his age. He even prefers vacations of his own choosing. “With three generations living together, you need time away from each other,” Beth explains.
An almost universal concern among the elderly is the possibility of living in a retirement center or nursing home. For the past sixteen years, Gladys Sorenson has lived in a nursing home. She never married, but lived with her mother and sister in the family home until a heart ailment required a three-month hospital confinement. “I had never really been sick before,” she relates, “and I didn’t like being dependent on others for care.” A massive stroke required her admission to the nursing home.
At ninety, Sister Sorenson has developed an attitude of caring and service to others that affects the lives of almost everyone in the facility. “I realize that I can be a part of everyone’s happiness here,” she says.
Her nephew David Sorenson and his wife, Lee Ann, visit her every week, and Lee Ann takes Aunt Gladys out for lunch and shopping. Since it is difficult for Sister Sorenson to get around in her wheelchair, Lee Ann often asks the salesperson if she can take an item out to the car for her aunt to approve.
Of her community-type residence, Sister Sorenson says, “At first I was restless here—I wanted to be home. But the stroke allowed no alternative. So I determined that if this was to be my home, I would make this a good part of my life.”
Many elderly people, especially those who live alone, may feel neglected and lonely. “My loneliest time is at night in the winter,” Sister Fowler still admits. “Outside it is dark, cold, and quiet, and my drapes are pulled tight to keep the heat in. All of a sudden I find myself bursting into tears and wondering why.”
Sister Bertha Maughan, who still lives alone at age ninety-six, fights discouragement by dressing attractively each day, maintaining good nutrition, and seeking a positive environment through good music, reading, and television. “I think it is my duty to keep going,” she smiles, “and I try to make sure my body and mind are fed constantly.”
One sister, a widow who lives alone, organized a family home evening program for other widows in her ward. Each Monday night she picks them up and drives them to her house for a lovely evening together.
Family, friends, neighbors, and ward members can help alleviate some of the loneliness of the elderly by setting an extra place at the dinner table, sharing a fresh-baked loaf of bread or a bouquet of flowers, or inviting their elderly friends to a family home evening.
When distance separates family members, the elderly always welcome phone calls, letters, pictures, reports of school activities, and handmade gifts. Family members who live closer can provide hugs and kisses, lawn mowing and snow shoveling, a partner for a game of checkers, or someone to “sleep over” for a special occasion.
As our life expectancy lengthens, most of us will need to deal with the challenges of retirement and aging. By helping others deal with those challenges, we not only learn to deal with them ourselves, but we are also better for having shared our homes and our hugs with those who have time to share and love to give.