This week it seemed like everything wore out: The washing machine stopped working, two friends had to give up their homes to live in care centers; wool blazers that I saved, sure they’d come back in style, had moth holes in them, and my glasses need larger and larger print books or refuse to see. Even the trees have decided to be stark, dark and bare.
Wearing out struck me as an important subject when another of my friends passed on. Truth is, she had left this world more than two years ago when a stroke incapacitated her physically and mentally, but we shall still miss the vital her. I was glad to see that many people did remember and honor her, but I wondered how many knew all the things she did for Casper and Wyoming. I wondered whether they knew her when she was herself, rather than what she had become as her health deteriorated.
Without Shirley Meenan, there might not be a counseling center or, at best, it may have been formed too late to help some people. She was the spark plug, and like many other older people I know, her legacy is little known nor long remembered. Her wit, intelligence, compassion, knowledge were all, it seems, buried in the past.
Naturally, I have a personal interest in this subject, but I also am concerned about the larger issue — the place of the aging in our society. When and why do we make aging people invisible? So I talked to Kate Sarosy, the president of Wyoming AARP. Evidently we have six or more senior residences (small apartments with modest rents) and there are many sources of free/affordable food in Casper ranging from Meals on Wheels and local churches to numerous food closets and banks. Aware of broader needs of the elderly, the AARP has launched a project called Friendly Communities.
It appears that Casper has done a good job of caring physically for older citizens; the larger problem is isolation. While many older adults find ways to stay engaged, many are isolated physically and most are isolated psychologically. They have few visitors, and even those who get outside their home are often treated as though they are already in another world.
It is only in reading the obituaries that we realize if it weren’t for a whole lot of people who came before us, we wouldn’t have parks and ski clubs, schools and libraries, decent housing, food and multiple social services that individuals can no longer provide for themselves.
The truth is, most of us oldsters would rather go from lively to dead. What we are anxious about is the transitional period when, one by one, the joints, heart, kidneys, liver, and sometimes even the mind, wear out. At least when the latter happens, we may not be aware that other parts aren’t working, but our families are painfully aware.
Many of us feel that after a certain age (not drawing a salary), we either become children or are invisible; if we feel as though others look through us as though we are not here, it is because we are now a group, a category, rather than individuals. The blessing and the annoyance is that we have histories, and we want to tell the younger generation about our stories. We want to signal our legacies, and so we’ve begun to write our own obituaries and epitaphs.
Maybe we’ll be surprised to discover that those left behind do not remember what we did so much as why we loved them and how they loved us. Maybe our legacies consist of what we were passionate about. Let’s write obits that say that “she cared about community and did something to make it better,” or that “she loved singing,” or “he loved baking cookies for everyone” or “she loved her garden” or “he doted on his grandchildren.” Maybe we only need to list our jobs and positions if we loved them and they reflected our view of the world.
How about scheduling a Legacy Day every year when family, friends and neighbors can keep alive the gifts those who departed left that made our lives better? Let’s start with treating those “golden oldies” as though they matter, not only for what they will leave us, but what they would share with us now, if we’d just pay attention.
There are, we are told, other cultures that revere their elderly. Here in America, we seem to be living in a culture where not only washers and refrigerators last only a few years and are discarded, but where we apply the same principle to our elders even though they last longer.
Shirley, Marta, Anne, Kathy, Jane and all those others dear to us: We know you wore out, but we are so glad you were here because you made a difference in our lives, our neighborhoods, our communities, and yes, our world. Happy Legacy Day.