Linda’s Reflections on Aging
In the summer of 2015, we knew Dwight was facing treatment for prostate cancer. We decided to schedule surgery at City of Hope and then to go to our beloved Birds’ Nest in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota until mid August before returning to Southern California for surgery. The drive to SD was difficult. We arrived to find Pete battling Norway rats who had moved into our cabin. Dwight was very tired and it became apparent to me that we needed to return home earlier than planned. Then it seemed clear to me this probably needed to be our last summer at the cabin. Dwight’s legs were weak; walking on the uneven terrain was asking for a fall. With our kids support and help, we chose what we wanted to take from the cabin and with Kristin and Daren’s help, enjoyed a neighborhood gathering planned quickly by our neighbors of 45 years, Mark and Lois Bucholz, and began the long drive back to Claremont.
Dwight’s pre-surgical tests discovered a 95% blocked carotid artery; Dwight had immediate surgery to have a stent inserted and then he ended up with aspirational pneumonia. After a five day hospital stay and ten days in the Health Services Center at Pilgrim Place, I discerned that a four or five hour surgery would not be a good thing. We were blessed to move from City of Hope to Loma Linda where proton therapy for prostate cancer promised equally good results. So for 45 days over a ten week period, we traveled to Loma Linda (only a forty-five minute drive) for proton therapy. Fatigue was really the only side effect and we can now say that the treatment (which we completed on Epiphany (January 6, 2016) was successful. We give thanks to God for the options available to us and for the excellent care which Dwight received.
Nevertheless, we continued to know that our summers at our Birds’ Nest were over. After 45 years, beginning in 1971 when we bought 4.88 acres in the Black Hills–surrounded by National Forest–with ponderosa pine, an Aspen grove and a meadow at almost 6,000 ft. elevation, it was time to close this chapter of our lives.
Could we have returned for a shorter time and kept trying to make it work? Could we have stayed the course until a fall, or some other health catastrophe forced us to return no more? Of course.
How did we know? What led us to make this decision? We knew that we would have to depend on our kids and our friends if we were to try to deal with the water, fences, unwelcome cabin rodents, and all the other things that are required to keep a seasonal cabin up. With 4o miles to good medical care (13 of which were on winding gravel roads), 13 miles for groceries or drugs, uneven ground for walking, and miles to drive for church and visits to all our favorite sites, the time was right to close this wonderful chapter of our lives. The long car trip from Southern California to South Dakota was also a factor.
Our two youngest children were preschoolers when we purchased this land and now they are nearing 50. We have so many wonderful memories of times well-spent in this “thin place” close to the heart of God. Our generation in Spring Creek Valley has been slipping away–we’ve shared memories across these last summers of neighbors who have died and one couple sold their cabin. The next generation is slowly claiming family cabins.
I made a wonderful coffee table book of our 45 summers in the Paha Sapa. It was my grief work. It still lives on our piano where we can open it to different pages whenever we walk by and think about it. We have photos on our hall wall and that bring us joy. We love seeing posts on face book from our friends there! Memories, some bitter sweet, sustain us.
As a gerontologist, I have been reflecting on what enabled us to close this chapter without a crisis that forced such a decision. Here are some of my thoughts.
- Accepting one’s physical limitations and choosing to use things like hearing aids, walkers, canes or whatever else assists one in living as fully and as independently as one can for as long as one can is an important life skill that enhances the aging process.
- Denying one’s aging and continuing to risk falls and accidents that could be avoided is detrimental to successful aging.
- Finding ways to acknowledge one’s grief and to own it, frees one to move into new chapters in life.
- Celebrating the past and then choosing to move to a different chapter can offer new opportunities so that one is not stuck in grieving what is lost.
- Looking for new ways of experiencing favorite things in different settings fosters growth.
Here are things that we miss.
- Having visits from family and friends (especially some of our Midwest friends who came oftener than they are able to come to California).
- Attending all the plays at the Black Hills Playhouse.
- Visiting Crazy Horse Memorial and the fine museum that continues to develop.
- Wildlife drives through Custer State Park.
- Days spent meandering back roads.
- Breakfast at Cheyenne Crossing followed by time at Roughlock Falls where we often spent whole days reading beside the stream, napping, picnicking, and walking the trail from above the falls to Cheyenne Crossing.
- Sharing meals with good neighbors from Spring Creek Valley.
- Our annual Valley Rally with so many of the adult children and grands and great-grands of our neighbors and friends gathering to eat and share.
- Finding ghost towns/ranches and imagining what life was like “back then.”
- Stopping to see what was new at our favorite Warriors’ Works gallery in Hill City.
- Worshipping at Custer Lutheran Fellowship with friends in our summer congregation.
- Reading on our deck or in front of the fireplace.
- Being dazzled by the night sky where the Milky Way arced right up our draw and once being awakened by the Northern Lights.
- Being blessed by seeing two graceful mountain lions (we knew they were there but folks rarely see them!).
- Evening drives to see deer, elk and beavers.
- Having dinner at the Alpine Inn.
- Enjoying the French Creek Folk musical group that Dwight was keyboardist for.
- Fourth of July celebrations at Mount Rushmore.
- Snuggling under a down comforter when the temperature drops into the thirties in August.
- Watching children make moon shadows on the road.
- Being awed as a thunderstorm moves across the meadow and the rain comes.
- Roasting hot dogs and making s’mores around our wonderful slate fire circle.
- Scattering ashes of loved ones in a sacred place.
- Being blessed by Darrell, Joy, Jan and Herb, Marion and Stan, Doris, Janna and Randy and so many more whom we would never have known if we had not become “more than summer folks.”
- Visiting the fire tower at Bear Mountain.
- Experiencing a major forest fire and learning from having to decide what to take and what to leave when we had 45 minutes to load our van and drive away—not knowing if anything would remain.
Once in a while, a memory brings tears and that is okay, too. We wouldn’t trade those 45 summers for anything. But as we begin our second summer without the planning and anticipation of soon heading for the hills, here are things that this new chapter in our lives offers.
- Our first opportunity to visit the LA Phil’s summer home for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
- Continuing to enjoy our pool and spa with water aerobics three times a week.
- An opportunity to celebrate our anniversary near Joshua Tree National Park and seeing the desert in the summer.
- A cross-country train trip to visit my sister in MO and to help Kristin celebrate her 50th birthday in Wisconsin.
- A September cruise to Alaska with Dwight’s college roommate and his wife—good friends we haven’t seen for a long time.
- A more leisurely schedule at Pilgrim Place with concerts in the city park, a fourth of July breakfast in the park and a parade in Claremont.
- Summer activities at our church that we’ve missed in the past.
- Drives up Mt. Baldy (we can be in the Angeles National Forest in 20 minutes) to get our “mountain fix.”
- Pilgrim Tours to the Hollywood Bowl, to Palm Springs and to the beach that we’ve missed in the past.
- Dinner theater performances with good friends just a mile from our home.
- Time for reading on our patio.
Speaking as a gerontologist, once again, I advocate for living by the serenity prayer—learning to accept the things we cannot change, having the courage to change the things we can, and embracing the wisdom to know the difference! We need to know when it is time to stop driving on the freeways and when it is time to give up driving altogether. We need to be willing to use whatever aids for walking safely that we need—canes, walkers, electric carts, or motorized chairs. We need to assess honestly when we are being stubborn and when we are giving up too easily. Sometimes, working at physical therapy can enable us to remain mobile longer. Sometimes, we risk broken bones and other bad outcomes from falls because we are too stubborn to accept our need for a safer way of living.
Learning to know when it is time to downsize and move into assisted living is a crucial skill. Here are some guidelines that can help us decide.
- When I become too tired to do what I want to do because activities of daily living take all my energy.
- When I find myself forgetting whether or not I took my medicine.
- When I stop eating in healthy ways because it takes too much energy.
- When I withdraw from activities and friendships due to depression and/or lack of energy.
- When I feel vulnerable and fear falling.
- When I am no longer able to safely bathe, dress myself or care for my home.
We have told several good friends that we believe we will know when it is time for us to make the move to assisted living because we have always been proactive in deciding that “now is the time” (for example) to move from Chicago to Pilgrim Place and to give up the cabin. However, in case we aren’t as aware as we think we are, these friends have permission to tell us they think it is time for us to make such a move. Our children, too, have permission to give us their counsel and advice.
The old adage, “Aging is not for sissies!” is true. But aging well, with dignity and hope, is possible. It is a journey those of us who reach our eighties and beyond are both blessed and challenged to pursue. With acceptance of what is and with grace for what can yet be, we journey on!