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The golden years and beyond

This fall has been a difficult one for my family.

I’ve been very lucky to make it to 35 years old and still have both of my grandmothers still alive. But today, my grandmothers are 85 and 88 respectively and, sadly, their health has started to decline.

My dad’s mom, age 85, has Alzheimer’s disease. It’s been a few years since her diagnosis, and this December will mark her fourth year in long-term care. My mom’s mom, age 88, has been Healthy Living with my aunt for at least 15 years, but in the past few months has started to decline and now also requires a move to long-term care.

Let me tell you a bit about my grandmothers. My dad’s mom was born in the Maritimes a few years before the Great Depression. She grew up in the height of the Depression, taking care of her younger brothers and sisters. She learned the value of a dollar and the value of hard work early and was the backbone of her family. When she was 17, she met a boy from Quebec on his way overseas to fight in WWII. She fell in love, married him, and sent him away not knowing if he’d ever make it back.

She left the Maritimes to go live on his family’s farm in Quebec while awaiting the arrival of her first child. There she lived, in a place where she didn’t speak the language, continuing to work hard and pray for the safe return of that boy from overseas.

He, thankfully, came back from the war and they settled down to life in Montreal. She had more children, raised them and ran the household, managing the money and keeping the family healthy, happy and secure – even if money was sometimes tight. They were married for 59 years before that “boy” passed away, and she never once lost her remarkable spirit.

My mom’s mom was also born in the “roaring 20s,” this time in a little town in Quebec. She was the apple of everyone’s eye – the beautiful girl who loved life. She met her own Prince Charming after the war and settled down to raise a family and run a household.

She never once forgot she was a lady, always dressing in skirts and clothing suitable for whatever occasion life would throw at her. (Think of the women in Mad Men… impeccably turned out at all times.) She had a strong faith that she passed along to her daughters, and that belief never wavered even when she lost her husband almost 20 years ago. She was the one person everyone adored – her parents, her siblings, her husband, her children, her grandchildren and even her great-grandchildren.

Both women showed remarkable spirit in the face of adversity. Both lived through the Depression, WWII, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, Trudeaumania, the Cold War and 9/11.

That’s what makes all of this so hard to accept. The thought that these two women, once the caregivers, can no longer take care of themselves is almost too hard to bear.

Luckily, I had a chance recently to talk to an expert in elder care about this whole process of aging for our article, “Generation gap.’” Audrey Miller works with families to help them find the care their aging parents and grandparents need, and she understands first-hand how difficult it is to have to find care for someone who once took care of you.

The biggest thing, she reminded me, is not to think of this as “the end” for the elderly. It’s just a transition – moving from one phase of life to the next. The key is to ensure your beloved family member makes that transition easily so when she does have to make the dreaded “final” transition, she can do it with the grace with which she lived the rest of her life.

Talking to Miller really helped me gain some perspective on the elders in my own life. While I’m saddened that my grandmothers are no longer able to care for themselves, I know in my heart the care they are getting is the care they need. It’s the least our family can do for the two women who made it what it is today.


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