A little about my grandmother to set the stage. Like many of her generation, she grew up on a farm and vowed to move to the city as soon as humanly possible. She left home after high school with a good girlfriend (like many of our clients) and became a secretary. She married, had children, but then lost her husband when they were still young. Consequently, in a day and age when single working moms were not in the public conscious, she raised her family and worked to support them. I’m biased, but I think she was extraordinary and did a good job! One might say she had done enough, and she could be forgiven if she got through raising them, retired and did nothing for the rest of her life. But she didn’t.
My grandmother loved to travel. Since she wasn’t rich and she was single, she found a travel club and joined. The club would hop on a propeller plane and visit various destinations around the US and the Caribbean. She took bus rides and drove places when there was another place she wanted to go. She and my Grandpa Joe (whom she married later in life) would travel around to see places they hadn’t seen before or wanted to share with each other. And she always sent her grandchildren, and Joe’s postcards. Later, when my brother was abroad for school and then teaching abroad, she wanted to hear all about it. Even when she started forgetting, if you asked her about Africa, she’d pull out the scrapbook she had made from his pictures and emails.
I said she made a scrapbook- she was very creative. The biggest thing she did was to sew. My grandmother was a stylish woman who made her own clothing. My mother didn’t know what store bought clothes were until she was an adult. But it wasn’t just sewing. She made cards on the computer using the latest program on the computer. I wouldn’t call her a computer wiz, but she wasn’t afraid of new technology- it fascinated her. She wasn’t a tech-head having to have the latest thing, but she quickly left her typewriter behind and always asked questions about what new programs could do.
I can’t imagine my grandmother in a sweat suit or running shorts! That would be improper, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t active. She gardened (she didn’t like farms, but she liked her small gardens in the yard!). And most importantly, she loved to dance. She joined a ballroom dance club early on and would tell us about the dances and competitions. Even at my wedding she and my Grandpa, in the midst of her dementia still could do a bit of a waltz. She was very social and enjoyed the social company at the dances. That’s how, almost 20 years after my biological grandfather died, she met my Grandpa Joe. Their love affair lasted 30 years and I know they love one another still.
She enjoyed people and she loved to laugh with them. She appreciated a funny story or a good joke. And she didn’t mind being ribbed, nor giving a good teasing. At her funeral, my uncle indicated that this was often the way she’d show how fond she was of someone. She’d share secret winks and smiles with me as she teased my parents about the trouble we were about to get into.
When we think about healthy aging, I think it’s easy to get into stereotypes. “I should be exercising.” “I should do more crossword puzzles.” “I should eat a Mediterranean diet.” And while there are some absolutes in there- for example, veggies just are more healthy then sweets- there is room for variety. I don’t know how often she did crossword puzzles, but she continued to learn about new things and explored what she was interested in. My grandmother didn’t exercise much, but she was active. She chose maintained her curiosity about life, even in the midst of her dementia and continued to do the things that she was interested in. At the end of the day, this is what keeps all of us aging in a healthy and successful way.
Christine Bitzer, LICSW, is the Assistant Director of Seabury Resources for Aging’s Care Management service. Care managers work with older adults on an individual basis to advise them on a variety of issues and services; such as home care, transportation, medical/legal assistance and housing. Families are put at ease having a knowledgeable guide to provide recommendations and resources to meet their unique needs. This expertise can save families money and reduce stress and time away from work. Christine can be reached at (202) 364-0020 or email her at CBitzer@seaburyresources.org