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At Life’s End, My Family Showed Me a New Way to Live

I found unexpected models for aging in an independent- and assisted-living home.

Key points

  • Everything can change in old age...and sometimes for the better.
  • It wasn't until the end of my mom and mother-in-law's lives that I realized they had new beginnings.
  • The more time you have, the more you can change in ways you might never imagine.
Caroline Leavitt
Even at 100, my mom wanted to go out to breakfast.
Source: Caroline Leavitt

Getting older is really hard for me. Not just looking in the mirror (where did the wrinkles come from and why are they breeding?) but all the messages thrown at us women of a certain age. Color your hair and you’ll look younger! Forget looking good or finding love because that’s for the young. What brought aging even closer home to me was having to find independent living places for both my 93-year-old mom and my 86-year-old mother-in-law.

My husband and I looked at—and quickly dismissed—places with wheelchairs lined along the walls, each one filled with someone sick who was staring into space. We looked at places where the antiseptic smell was so strong, the décor so gray, we left almost immediately. Even after we found places that had small, bright, apartments, both my mother and my mother-in-law were really upset. They didn’t want to leave their homes. They didn’t want to downsize. They felt as if their lives were over. And so did we.

I never want to feel that, I thought.

But if I thought that my mom and my mother-in-law at that point were the opposite of inspirational for me, it took me until the ends of their lives to realize that the opposite was true.

Let’s start with my mother. She was a complicated, incredible woman. She fiercely loved me and my older sister, and just as fiercely, she hated men. Jilted at 19 by the man she loved, marrying my brute of a dad on the rebound, she was never happy. But because it was the 1950s, divorce was out of the question. Plus, she had scandalized our neighborhood enough just by working as a schoolteacher. Back then, she disliked all men and didn’t hesitate to tell my older sister and me how she hated our boyfriends, even as she pushed marriage and family and a 1950s-style life on both of us. My sister followed her path, marrying young, but I balked.

“How did I get so old?” my mother would wail. “I never expected my life to be so small.” She raged and picked fights. She refused to see a therapist, or even to come and visit us. When, at 93, she could no longer stay in her home, she moved into independent living. “This is the end,” she said. She called me every night, shouting that it was my fault, that she hoped she would just die. When I got off the phone, I curled into a fetal position.

I’ll never be like that, I thought.

My mother-in-law was a typical and super traditional suburban housewife with kitsch all over her house. She nudged at me to cut my hair, while she herself had teased orange hair I thought was hilarious. She was traditional, I thought. A little out of step, a woman who had once praised me when she saw me carrying laundry by saying how good it was that I wasn’t lazy, at least.

Caroline Leavitt
Bright orange bouffant and a sense of style never left my mother-in-law
Source: Caroline Leavitt

She resisted going into assisted living until she was late in her 80s, and I thought I saw her future—sitting in a wheelchair, staring into space, along with the terror of losing her mind.

But that didn’t happen. She insisted on getting dressed up every day, and in fact, when there was a fashion show, she won it every time. She kept her hair in the same bouffant style she had always had it in, in bright orange, and suddenly, the hair I used to quietly mock became a symbol of who she was, and who she could be when she felt that she looked dazzling. And she acted accordingly. She insisted on being part of the world, setting up a mah jong group, and she, the most staunchly Jewish matron I have ever known, befriended a priest there and went to services. “It was so interesting!” she said.

But the most astonishing thing about her is she never thought about being old. “I’m not old,” she said at 70. “I’m not old,” she said at 80. And she said she wasn’t old at 101, either. Instead, even in the home, she was reading the newspaper every day to make sure she knew what was going on in the world. She was cutting out articles for places she wanted to visit, and when we could, we happily took her. It wasn’t until she was 101 that she quietly said, “I think I’m done,” and even then, she died on her own terms, in her own bed, not in hospice or hospital, with her loving family around her.

For my mother, old age brought miracles. At 93, in the independent living place, she met Walter, a year younger than she was, smart, funny, charming, and the two of them fell in love. “For the first time!” my mother told me. They were inseparable, in and out of each other’s apartments, with a physical relationship, too. And my mother, who was always stubborn and bitter, began to change. To hope.

She looked forward to every day, every hour. She and her beloved were together four years until Walter fell and died, and my mother began to have dementia, but my sister and I decided to never tell her. Because of that, she felt Walter was beside her every day until she died, one month shy of 101.

I felt as if those two mothers had given me a gift that I hope I can pay forward. Yes, there are terrors about aging for me still. But there is something amazing, too. The more time you have, the more you can change in ways you might never imagine.

I hope I’ll be like that.

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