WHEN I WAS 52 YEARS OLD, I welcomed my first set of twins, Kate and Max, into the world. Twenty months later our house was like Noah’s ark . . . the kids were coming two by two. That’s when my husband and I welcomed our second set of twins, Kim and Jack. Shortly thereafter, we invited a group of friends over to celebrate our two newest bundles of joy. The older twins were squealing with delight and dancing around the newborns. As some of my girlfriends came through the front door, they gasped at the bedlam before them.
“I’m exhausted just looking at this!” they said. Some were Type A workaholics while others were empty nesters who couldn’t fathom what my husband and I were undertaking.
A few hours earlier I had a local restaurant deliver food for the occasion. The comments from the European staff really sparked my interest because when those French women saw my toddlers romping around, they joyously exclaimed, “Oh my, you will never grow old!”
How about that? I think it’s profound that two sets of eyes could view the same situation and come to different conclusions. One found it exhausting, while the other saw it as exhilarating. Perception is reality, right? It sure was that day. But the truth is also circumstantial, because there were and still are days when I vacillate between both points of view.
But that is our crazy new world. In past generations, life and aging felt far more predictable. There was a structure to it that few people challenged. As boys became men, they married and went to work to earn the household income. Women had babies in their 20s and then stayed home to care for them. These traditional beliefs were the way society was structured for hundreds of years. There was also a higher rate of alcoholism, heart disease, and death before 70.
Life today simply does not play out like our grandparents’ or even our parents’ lives did. Current statistics show people are marrying and having children much later. Perhaps not as late as me, but parents are definitely skewing older. It has also become much more common, if not necessary, for both spouses to hold down jobs while still managing those homes and raising their families.
Most young couples have the expectation of living longer, and so do their parents. With this new lifestyle and this evolving aging landscape, there are myriad social, economic, and emotional stresses that come into play. When our grandparents’ generation approached their 50s, their parents had likely passed away and their children were grown and already out on their own. Those generations were considered over-the-hill by age 50, retired by 60, and likely six feet under by 70.
I always got the sense, even from my parents, that you had to have made it by the time you were 50. For whatever reason, that age served as a professional benchmark. Your career might extend into your 60s, but until recently, your 60s were generally your retirement years. Basically, 65 was your use-by date. When my mom was a young woman starting a family, she didn’t anticipate living past 70. She was shocked to make it to almost 95.
There wasn’t a thought that when a person reached their 50s or 60s, they could find themselves taking care of their older parents while simultaneously still caring for their children. But today our lives and our aging timelines are completely different. There are tens of millions of people who are at some stage of parenting while caring for aging parents. Our generation often finds itself needing to meet demands at both ends of the life spectrum — the needs of our children at one end and the needs of our aging parents on the other.
That is how we became the sandwich generation, and the challenges certainly require a new playbook.
AS IT HAPPENED, in my 50s I was changing my twins’ diapers at the same time as I was managing the care of my aging mother. My life was controlled bedlam at times (it still is sometimes!), and it’s not really where I expected to be, yet that was my life and I was loving every minute of it.
It baffled me to think that I was picking out strollers — make that double strollers, for Max, Kate, Kim, and Jack — while I was also buying cars for my teenage girls Jamie, Lindsay, and Sarah, and a wheelchair for my mom, Glady.
I took over the care and responsibility of my mother at a young age, much younger than I ever expected. I became financially responsible for her when I was in my early 30s. At first, it was really more like being her personal travel agent. I was fortunate enough to be able to send her on trips all over the world, and she relished every moment of those adventures. I always got such a kick out of her excitement as we planned what she’d see, where she’d eat, and where she’d shop in every foreign city. No doubt, there were times when I’d get a little tired of her first-class travel requests, but she truly enjoyed these jaunts, so I never said no.
Mom was known as Glitzy Glady, not just for her effervescent personality but also because of her love of gold purses, gold cowboy boots, gold lame, and, well, anything else trimmed in gold. It all went so well with her glamorous red hair, which she had until the day she passed away. One of her famous mottos was, “You dye until you die.” I’m with her on that one.
One of the beautiful things about our parents growing older is that they can share with us what they learn about the aging process, and often these can be powerful nuggets of wisdom, hope, and, in the case of my mom, humor. For example, she always enjoyed telling people that she was five years older than she really was; that way, they would tell her, “Oh my, you look so young for your age.” My mom never could resist a compliment!
Aging parents also tend to talk about their younger lives since those are the deeply imbedded memories they can most easily tap into. If we are open to listening, we can often glean a lot about our family history and about our parent as a person. I consider this privileged and prized information.
You don’t have to be a parent to pass on your life experiences. One of my single friends (53 years old, has never been married nor had children) told her eldest niece as she went off to college, “You will make mistakes and bad choices; that is inevitable. But if I have anything to do with it, you won’t make my mistakes and bad choices.” She then handed the young woman a journal. She had been keeping the journal for about 10 years, and it contained little anecdotes, notes of wisdom, and stories that she had collected with the sole reason to be a gift to her nieces. She wanted them to have her perspective as a single woman living in New York City. Everyone is important in passing on family legacy.
My mom was an eternal optimist. She taught me to reach for the stars and to expect great things both of myself and of life. Move over Eckhart Tolle, my mom was my original guru of positive thinking. Through her perspective, I learned some of the most valuable lessons in life. She definitely inspired me to be an independent young woman who dared to venture into a man’s field — the television news business — and to make my way up the ladder.
When I was 25 and anchoring the news in my hometown of Sacramento, I invited my mom to have lunch one day after the noon broadcast. She was super proud that my television career was taking off; she never missed one of my broadcasts. However, the reason I’d invited her to lunch that afternoon was to tell her that I had received an exciting job offer from the ABC TV affiliate in New York City. They wanted me to be a field reporter and the weekend anchor. The offer meant I would be leaving my local TV job and moving to the Big Apple — one of the largest markets in television. This was a huge opportunity for me. I wanted and needed my mom’s support.
I watched her expression vacillate between excitement for me and disappointment for her. Although I would make it a priority to return home to see her often, she’d no longer be able to watch me on TV every day as she always had. Once she absorbed the news, she enthusiastically said, “Joni, while I hate the idea of not having you here with me, I know that you are destined to do big things. I can see your name in lights, so you just keep shooting for the stars and don’t ever doubt that you can make it to the top.” In typical mom fashion, she had just the right words at the right time.
In case you can’t tell, my mom was a real spitfire. But even women as vivacious and excited about life as she was can hit a point when they must put down their travel guides and pick up the TV Guide instead. It was a difficult transition to witness. Her decline was slow, but noticeable.
As Mom grew older, I watched her check out. Her life of leisure travel and social parties was over. She folded up her St. John pantsuits, put away her gold heels, and seemingly settled in for old age. Like millions of others, I became my mom’s caregiver almost overnight.
About the same time she was slowing down, my brother, Jeff, also needed to be cared for. He was suffering from many of the debilitating complications of type 2 diabetes. We all decided that it would be best if I moved my mom and my brother into a condominium together. I arranged for an aide to help them a few days a week. They were very comfortable and happy living that way and came to depend on each other.
As their health declined, my mom and I often discussed their living situation. She wanted to move to an active senior community like all of her friends had done. We’d even visited some of the communities where these friends were living. They, too, were encouraging her to make the move — everyone loved having vivacious Glady around.
In retrospect, I wish I had been more persistent about moving her there while she was in her 70s. She would have played robust card games, gone shopping with her girlfriends, and spent evenings at the movies or participating in other fun social events. They would have laughed and made lots of new memories together.
Mom knew deep down that she would enjoy living that life and that it would keep her feeling young and vibrant, but she wouldn’t leave my brother. He was unable to move to the senior community because he smoked cigarettes, something they didn’t allow. My brother’s smoking habit created a real conundrum. He couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. He was in his mid-50s and was battling so many serious health issues that I sometimes wonder if smoking was the only thing he could still enjoy.
Over time, as their health declined, so did their outside social connections and engagements. My brother’s diabetes progressed to the point where he was sometimes too sick to even leave his room, so Mom went from living with a close companion to being a recluse with no one to talk to.
While my mom wasn’t living alone, she was experiencing bouts of loneliness. She had none of the stimulation, conversation, and sense of the security she had once enjoyed when the two of them cooked, watched TV together, and talked for hours about life. Eventually, the combination of smoking and diabetes contributed to Jeff’s death at an early age. Living that way ultimately robbed my mom of much of her wellness and happiness, especially in her later years, and it seemed, at least to me, to exponentially accelerate her dementia.
When I looked into this theory of mine, I found that loneliness raises our stress hormone levels and causes inflammation associated with a wide range of health issues. It can lead to a higher risk of heart attack, stroke, anxiety, depression, and dementia. Social isolation is also thought to be on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking as a risk factor for early death. Researchers at Brigham Young University have found that isolation and loneliness are as detrimental to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and that lonely people are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships.
Managing our parents’ later years doesn’t always go as smoothly as we’d like. I have long regretted that I let my mother check out as she did. I felt like her life shouldn’t have come to a screeching halt like that. But knowing what I know now, I think what may have been happening was the dementia had started to take over her world. She no longer felt confident gallivanting around and putting herself in unfamiliar airports and hotels. I’ll admit, I get that.
My mom seemed to stop running the bases just like that. She turned in her uniform and forfeited the rest of the game. I don’t think it was a conscious move on her part, but it was very apparent to me and to all of her friends. Her gradual retreat from life and slide into dementia broke my heart. Could I have put my foot down for her sake? Maybe.
I’ve certainly asked myself that question many times. I think many of us grapple with these types of nagging questions as we help our parents navigate their later years. One thing is for sure, though, being a part of my mom’s aging journey made me really think about my own. It felt like Glitzy Glady’s spark had been extinguished. Would that happen to me? I certainly don’t want to believe that my fire will go out like that.
Oh no, I want to stay in this game of life as long as possible. I see myself racing around third base slightly out of breath, digging down deep to grasp one last blast of air and adrenaline, then wildly sliding face-first into home base, sending dirt flying all over the place while the crowd cheers, “What an amazing run, Lunden!” With all my children at the dugout high-fiving one another, taking pictures, and remembering that their mother’s life had been a splendid home run!
Joan Lunden is a journalist, author, and former host of “Good Morning America.” This essay is adapted from her forthcoming book, “Why Did I Come Into This Room? A Candid Conversation About Aging,” released on March 10. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Lunden will discuss her upcoming book with former WCVB-TV anchor Kelley Tuthill at Wellesley Books (82 Central Street, Wellesley, 781-431-1160, wellesleybooks.com) on March 25. Tickets are $32 and include a copy of the book.