My grandmothers could not speak much English and most of their conversations were in Italian, their native language. Growing up with grandparents for whom English was a second language was not something I dwelled on; it was simply the way things were. If I noticed this facet of our family life at all, it was at those times when I had a particular need and I had to figure out how to remedy it. For example, if after walking to my maternal grandmother’s house and arriving hungry, I had to convey it to her with eye contact, smiling, and generally hanging around in the kitchen. Being soft- hearted and gracious as she was, it didn’t usually take very long before she had a loaf of Italian bread in her hands and a knife that she used to cut a slice from the oven crusted tangy loaf before buttering it amply and then handing it to me with a loving smile and warm eyes.
Neither of my grandmothers lived alone; at least one or more of their adult children lived with them in modest, but roomy, houses. They all shared in the housework, cooking, grocery shopping, social visits with neighbors and family members, and child care duties. I took it for granted that someone would always be home in both family residences and there was something else: my grandmothers were not feeble, frail, or required much caregiving until their health declined in their mid-eighties, and even then, they remained matriarchs, clearly in charge of the household, and fully contributing and respected members of the family.
As a “senior citizen” now myself, I am drawn to the work of Dr. Bill Thomas, author and gerontologist. Readers of this column will recall that I drove 5 hours round trip last May to hear his presentation in Ft. Wayne. His book, “What Are Old People For?” is used as a text in a course on gerontology & spirituality at the University of Indianapolis that I completed a few years ago.
Dr. Thomas reminds us that aging is not a disease but a normal stage of life; if you make it to your 70’s or 80’s and beyond, consider yourself very fortunate, even privileged. To be able to live a long life, as my grandmothers did, with its many blessings and joys, and yes, even its struggles, is a form of spiritual wealth.
I resonate with Dr. Thomas’ whole attitude toward aging when he says things like this, “…(my) generation, which reinvented what it means to be young, should now be reinventing what it means to grow old. We need to get people out of hospitals, we need to create a rich set of community-based alternatives.” In essence, he argues, the goal is “normalizing the entire lifespan instead of separating and stigmatizing one part as something different.” And I would argue, our goal should be to strive to achieve what my grandmothers did – a life well lived, as an important and vital member of the family, right up until death called them home.