HealthStyle: Making a life meaningful

David Gannon More Content Now

Many of us are going through life reflections as our parents, aunts, and uncles are growing older, and we are not sure how much time we have left with them. I visited my godmother, Jean, recently. I was prompted to go back this time because I was told that her health seemed to be declining. She is now 90 years old. She lives in another state, so it has been two years since I last saw her. At that time she was still getting around but walking very little, and the high energy we remembered from many years ago was no longer there. The years had taken a physical toll, but her personality had not changed. Over the years she had kept that witty and dry sense of humor, and her observations on people, situations and herself were still funny and amazingly astute. She sometimes asked direct questions or made comments with little tact, but it was never done to hurt anyone but to satisfy her continuing curiosity and interest in others. And in spite of our warnings that they would shorten her life, she was still smoking a lot of cigarettes. Since I did not smoke, I subtly tried to dodge the puffs of smoke circling her just to be able to spend the time near her.

We have a long history with her since she has been the best friend of our Aunt Mary from the time they were students in high school. We got to know her when we were kids visiting our Aunt Mary in the summers of rural Pennsylvania. She came as a package deal. We also met several of her nieces and nephews and their parents and they became like our new pretend cousins and best friends. They always called her Aunt Jean so we started to do that too. They all lived in another small town nearby and we delighted in the Mayberry-like atmosphere of these two little former coal mining towns. Aunt Jean became part of the experience and the adventure of family summer vacations visiting our Aunt Mary. There were many good times as we went with her nieces and nephews to the dairy bar and danced to the juke box, sat on a hill to watch the local baseball game with local players, went on hay rides, and visited the company store and Johnny’s store in the town to buy a little candy. Who needed Disney World?

When we were young Aunt Jean was a successful medical professional in the community of Pittsburgh. She and Aunt Mary would often take all of the kids to go to a large beautiful swimming pool at a local hotel, play miniature golf, or go to dinner at a great Italian restaurant in another town nearby. We were awed by some of the classy cars Aunt Jean had then including a Mercedes Benz that we didn’t know was an expensive car and the flashy Chrysler convertible with the bright blue paint job. Aunt Mary and Aunt Jean were amazing golfers and made frequent trips to the local golf course coming home with trophies from tournaments they had won and then rehashed the game with friends that evening. We all spent summer evenings around a table with the best pizza and the best friends. Of course everything was always the best in Pennsylvania. Aunt Mary had a small business where she also lived. It was on a couple of acres in the country on a hill above what had once been a small coal mining town called Crow’s Nest. Aunt Jean’s and Aunt Mary’s friends would often stop there, tell stories, and laugh as we enjoyed the company of people we only saw for a few weeks in the summer. My sister and I never wanted to go back home.

I thought of all these good memories as we went back to visit. I did not know what to expect. Aunt Jean’s friend and roommate had died two years ago and this was great loss to her. Then there was the inevitable decline from ninety years of living, some medical complications, and the effect of two packs of cigarettes per day for probably seventy of those years. When we entered her home we were greeted by one of our pretend cousins and we seemed to almost pick up the conversation where we had left off years ago. We visited with Aunt Jean and talked about our current lives and experiences. She sat in a chair across from us listening and smoking one cigarette after another and we again warned her how bad smoking was for her health and how it could shorten her life. I don’t think she believed us. She also drank a few beers just as she had always done. It was almost like old times. We quickly drifted into the reminiscences of those past experiences when we were kids. Aunt Jean would occasionally jump into the conversation. She was not as sharp as she used to be but she added to the stories of all of the experiences of our past and hers. I could see that she had paid a physical toll. She hasn’t played golf for a long time. She was not getting up to walk every hour as her doctor had instructed her to do but she still made up a story that it was the dog and not she that was supposed to walk. She now has to be supported to move around at all and sits in the chair a great deal. She has a home healthcare worker now to keep her company and help her. She still roots for the Pirates and the Steelers and sips a few beers. We all enjoyed the stories and I saw that the twinkle was still in Aunt Jean’s eyes

There are lessons to be learned from the visit. As people get elderly they seem to lose a sense of who they are due to physical and mental limitations. When you are with your elderly parents or other relatives, make the conversation count. Everybody loves to reminisce about past experiences they have shared together. This is especially helpful for people who are elderly because they usually remember the past very well. Show an interest in their memories and help them to reconnect with the identity they built over a lifetime. They feel better remembering and talking about their past careers, roles, experiences and relationships. It seems to help them get some closure and make their lives feel a little more meaningful.

David Gannon, Ph.D., Psychological and Family Consultants, Canton, Ohio.