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    Dona's Musings

My Answers as a Senior
to Students in a Geriatrics Class

By Dona L. Irvin

In September 2004, I spoke to students in a Geriatrics class at Chabot Community College in Hayward, California about some aspects of my life as an eighty-seven-year-old woman. Here are the questions they asked at the close of the talk with my answers, with my answers.

Question: What do you see now with young mothers compared to the mothers when you were growing up?

Answer: I cannot say that mothers of today love their children any more or any less than my contemporaries did, but I can say that there are some similarities and some obvious differences between now and the way it was with mothers fifty or sixty years ago.The entire scheme of life has changed, with good and not so good aspects in each era. In my youth there were challenges such as the normal resistance of children to supervision, and at that time, women had to cope with overall subservient status, with men taking much less of a role in child care than they do today. On the other hand, families were closer together. Aunts, grand mothers, and older sisters offered greater assistance in situations where one parent or both parents were absent. The concept of a one parent home as seen today was far less prevalent than it is today.

The whole village helped with the rearing of children. Unrelated adults felt free to discipline a small child who was engaging in rude conduct. Spirituality was more important, and because the school systems were far less complicated, schools seemed to meet the needs of the children better. One distinct advantage was that since most women were stay-at-home-mothers, the dynamics of the relations between mothers and children were different. That enabled them to establish a different type of relationship with gentle love and companionship as the center.

Now mothers and children alike must deal with the stresses that are inherent in today’s society. Mothers are faced with increased resistance of children to supervision and there is the added adverse influence of movies, TV, live entertainment, well-publicized examples of drug use and crime, sometimes in the child’s immediate neighborhood. This perpetuates the reality of children who are exposed to multiplied temptations from all sides of their lives, and women who have to cope with the effects upon their sons and daughters. In sum, I don’t think that today’s

young mothers love their children less, but the stresses and distractions are greater for mothers and children. In spite of the disturbing differences many mothers of today are doing their best to give their love and assistance to their children as they develop into successful adults who make positive contributions to their society. This was true when I was a young adult, and it is still true.

Question: Are you more or less emotional now than when you were younger?

Answer: I can’t say that the degree of my emotionalism is more or less, but I know that the emphasis is surely different. In my young adulthood it had more to do with things involving my children, my husband, and my home, and people close to me. As I matured, the focus broadened to include situations with my colleagues and my boss at my place of employment.

In my older age, the center of my emotions is at a deeper level, giving prominence to the facts of aging and concerns that are important to my mental and physical condition. Now I focus on my blood pressure, the cholesterol and sodium content of my diet, my eye sight, driving skills, leg cramps, regular mental and physical exercise, adequate support provided by the shoes I wear, and related topics.

I take my spirituality much more seriously than I did in my youth, and I find peace, comfort, and reassurance in moments of prayer, meditation, and expression of thanks for the good things in all aspects of my life.

Question: Are you afraid of dying? Do you see death as acceptance? Is this a difficult subject to talk about. How do you feel about this?

Answer: I do not find dying a difficult subject to talk about, but it most likely would have been painful for me some years ago, before I became a self-accepted, confident elder. I am happy to say that I consider the end of this earthly existence as an unescapable reality. Making that statement does not leave me bogged down in sorrow and regret.

I divide the subject of dying into 2 parts. I am not concerned about the first part of the transition from this life into another unknown state because I know that it must be done. But I have given much thought about the second part of the process, to how the ceasing of all of the body functions at the time of the transition is managed. My wish is not to be a lingering patient, wracked with pain and surrounded by grieving, suffering family and well wishers. I am convinced that I will know when the time comes for me to leave this life, and I hope that I will be allowed to do so with grace.

I have examples of more than one woman friend who knew when their time on earth was nearing its end. In each case they told their families when they were ready to make the transition and discouraged heroic procedures when the best medical opinions doubted positive results. In my estimation, this saved the patients and the survivors needless burdens of suffering and grief.

I have signed the Durable Power or Attorney for Health Care form to this effect and my family knows my wishes for final care and body disposal. Knowing this makes me feel comfortable in this regard, and makes it easier for me to consider death as a natural part of life. I know that I have several years ahead of me, and I am fond of repeating a statement that I heard in my Baptist church in my youth, “God is not through with me yet.” I translate that into my conviction that I want to complete projects I am now involved with, and perhaps others that will merge in later years. In spite of the frustration of temporary diversions that may arise, I am in an overall period of contentment with the quality of my life.

Question: What did you think of the film, “Roots?” What are your views? Is there any anger?

Answer: I am very proud of Alex Haley’s book “Roots” and its production into a movie shown on the television screen for millions of people to see. My original pride was in the overall quality of the movie, then I admired the talent of the actors and the story’s historical actuality. I could not escape the automatic anger about the whole experience of slavery with the dehumanization of people of my ancestry, but, as I had already learned throughout an entire life as an African American it is useless to hold onto the usual resentment that is triggered by the mere mention of the subject. I’m happy that I found other things about “Roots” to anchor my admiration in.

I admire Alex Haley’s work in locating his own roots in Africa and thereby increasing the popular knowledge about the realistic conditions in the slave trade and for stirring interest in pursuing family histories. As I suspect was true of thousands of black people in this country and elsewhere, my thoughts about “Roots”were mixed with pride in the production and revived anger about the indignities of the slave trade. But I have kept my positive reactions in the foremost of my mind. I think my response would have been the same if I had been asked this when I was much younger.

Question: Are you attached to material things?

Answer: How can I say no to this question with honesty? Yes, I love all the nice things about my life—my house, car, computer, house wares, my favorite coffee mug, clothes, jewelry, everything that adds to the pleasures of my life. I like to think that my material things are in good taste, that my clothes are not dated, my car not an antiquated wreck, my house decorated attractively, etc. I am happy to have my bright red VW Beatle that still attracts attention as I drive on the freeway. It is important to me to know that I have material things to make me feel good.

Material things are more important now to me than they were scores of years ago. I was reared in a traditionally religious southern African-American Baptist family, where such attention was looked upon with disfavor. That was thought of as vanity, a sin. It was not until I was past middle aged that I began to free myself enough to enjoy material things. Now I know that I am happier with this freedom as an octogenarian than I would be without it.

Question: You look very calm and relaxed. Are you more contented with life than before?

Answer: Yes indeed, I am more contented with life than ever before. That is due to many things:

Support of a spiritual foundation that I can rely on when problems arise.

A good marriage of sixty-seven years in an absence of real, unsolvable challenges.

Love and support of a daughter and her husband, with their good marriage and good careers.

Love and support of friends younger, as old, older.

Interaction with people of different age, sex, spiritual orientation, sexual preference, ethnicity.

Interest, enjoyment, and participation in things outside of my family and my home.

Freedom from financial worry.

Anticipation of continued good physical and mental health and enjoyment of a good quality of life.

Question: Did you ever or was there a time when you denied the aging process?

Answer: Yes, when I was about seventy years old I flirted with the idea of having a face lift to remove what I saw as unflattering bags under my eyes, and having artificial eye brows added to the few strands still existing. I thought that would make me look a bit younger than my true age. My family and friends were gentle with me but did not support my intention. I finally dropped the plan for artificial help and devoted my energy to doing what is in my power to make use of natural measures to maintain the best possible appearance for me. I now wash my face every morning and night and use products recommended by the lady who gives me a monthly facial. I am contented with the way I look as an octogenarian who is putting forth the best presentation possible at the time. I have wrestled with temptations of thoughts about my mortality; how many years I have

left, but those moments are at a minimum. I am satisfied with myself, jealous of a friend who will celebrate her 90th birthday within a few weeks.

Question: You should be a guest speaker on the Oprah Winfrey show. It will be a good discussion for others.

Answer: My husband and I were on that show about 5 years ago as part of her “Famous Love Stories”presentation. It was a great honor, being flown to Chicago and housed in a 5 star hotel, driven around in a limousine, and wined and dined. The only disappointment was that with the crowded show we had less than five minutes with her. But we are proud of that experience.

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