I was fortunate enough to be born to a wonderful family and this has helped in many ways at many times. Aging is no exception. As the youngest, I always knew that Jane, Sally and Ann had been whatever age I was about to be years before, so how bad could it be? They also ‘broke trail’ for me with our parents so that by the time I came along, the rules had mostly been broken and the ‘parental unit’ had loosened up a bit, making it easier for me. Of course, I had to get used to being called several different names before they got to Nancy, but that was good practice for life anyway.
So how else did they help with aging? The biggest contribution they made was by setting examples. They crossed all the hurdles or ‘rights of womanhood’ before I had to confront them. Usually, they set good examples, but once in a while I was able to learn from their mistakes or had to stumble along on my own. When my menses started, all I could find were Super tampons which were a challenge the first try. By the time I went to college, I was determined not to get pregnant. Little did I know that decision would last my lifetime!
Academically, I had advisors, too. I remember Jane suggesting that I take Art History to broaden my knowledge base. Although I wasn’t much interested, I did take it and performed rather poorly. Nonetheless, I still remember some of the art works from our heavy duty Jansen text book, so perhaps it was worthwhile. I think each of us struggled with what to ‘be’ when we grew up. For my sisters, this also involved college transfers and breaks before finishing. While I changed majors and wrestled with that big decision, I did make it through college in four years having avoided transfers.
I tend to think of my medical challenges as related to my over-active immune system instead of aging, but I guess illnesses are also part of aging. In any event, I’m certain that my husband was relieved when Ann insisted on going to Dartmouth Medical Center with me every Friday in 2012/2013. Then, when Jane was gravely ill and spent weeks in intensive care out in Colorado, our sister, Sally, went right out and took charge. She’s the organized one and always knows what needs to be done and how to accomplish it.
They say you can’t choose your family, which is somewhat true. You certainly don’t have a chance to pick your parents or siblings and as a child you have little choice in who you live with. The same may happen if you become disabled and perchance live in a nursing home, rehab, prison, or any residence where you are assigned a roommate. However, once you are an adult, you usually do have choices to make about who you want to spend your life with and can even sometimes find surrogates who fulfill your expectations of the role of a family member. In this country, you usually have the freedom to choose your mate or even to decide to try again if one choice didn’t work out for you. When my parents didn’t approve of my first husband, I ultimately had to choose between him and them. So Mom’s good friend, Amy, who was totally accepting of everyone, became my ‘second Mom’. I believe friends are often excellent substitutes and can be more like family than family, not to mention you can choose the ones you want, as opposed to the ones you were born with. Some people don’t have any siblings or for whatever reasons, are not close. For them it is even more important to have close friends who can support them and provide mutual nurturance as some sisters do. Since I don’t have children, my niece has decided she’ll have to take care of her mother AND me when we can’t do it ourselves. I hope it never comes to that, but it’s another example of how families still pitch in. There’s certainly nothing more important to a nursing home patient than visits and communication from family.
Pets, too, are a great comfort to many of us and are often considered family members. Dogs, in particular, are good at ‘unconditional positive regard’, accepting us no matter what we do (or don’t do) with or to them. Growing up, I always thought the family dog knew if I was upset and would comfort me in her own way. Dogs do have limited conversational skills, however, so if you need a confidant or some feedback you may want to find someone else. We just acquired my stepson’s dog, Norman, who is about two years old and FULL of energy. Our dog, Buddy, is almost 12 and he’s showing his age a lot. It’s fascinating to see the two together at such different phases of life. Buddy used to race around like Norman, but now he has difficulty just getting into the car and if I take him hiking, he limps afterward. If there’s a noise, Buddy barks and Norman runs to the door to see if there’s anyone around.
Silver Nugget #1: Cherish your family. It’s the only one you get as a birthright.
Silver Nugget #2: Don’t be afraid to find substitutes and make close friends who can be as dear as family members.