The Wise Men

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My Grandpa Little was my hero, and yet as I think back on this, I realize that even when I held him in high esteem I somewhat underestimated what a great man he was. He was only minimally educated much as people of his era were. Nonetheless he was able to read and write. He devoured books, newspapers and magazines and then dotted his conversations with information that he had learned. He was a builder who was able to repair almost anything in a house. He had a folksy wisdom and more than anything he was a remarkable storyteller. In another time he might have been an historian or a journalist or even a writer of books. He was also a survivor who adapted to whatever challenges came his way. He always did so with grace. 

When my grandfather was about 90 years old he was still incredibly healthy and his mind was brilliant. He owned a car and drove himself around his neighborhood, but not much farther. On one occasion he was leaving a grocery store when he accidentally backed into a cart that someone had left in the middle of the parking lot. It bothered him so much that he had not noticed the cart that he decided that it was time to quit driving. He believed that his mistake meant that he no longer belonged behind the wheel of a car. 

Grandpa drove carefully home and called one of his granddaughters. He told her that he wanted to give her his car with the proviso that she would be willing to drive him around whenever he needed to run errands or go see his doctor. She was thrilled to accept the deal and he boasted that a “menace” had been taken off the road. 

I marveled that he understood the nature of his aging process and was more concerned about the safety of others than his own pride. With his own doing he also rented a room from a young widow whose only hope of keeping her home was to lease space to a roommate. He would stay with her for eighteen years and they would become like father and daughter to one another. Because he was incredibly healthy and very much in control of his mind until he turned one hundred eight, he helped her with repairs on her home and nursed her when she was sick. Eventually they pooled their resources to pay for food and utilities. It was a lovely arrangement that seemed to work well for both of them as well as a third person who eventually came to live in the house with them. It was like Golden Girls meets Three’s Company.

My son-in-law’s grandfather was very much like mine. He reached a point after the death of his wife when he decided without any prodding to surrender his car and sign up for a suite in an independent senior living home. For him it was a logical move that allowed him to continue to live a full life while also being part of a community that watched over him. His family not only visited often but they also picked him up for family parties and celebrations and sometimes just for watching ballgames together. He kept his sense of humor and enjoyed great times until he was one hundred years old. As his health grew a bit worse he shifted to assisted living without a complaint. 

We each enjoy our homes, our privacy and our independence, but as the years go by our physical and mental health often begins to decline. Unless we live in a family community much like the Amish do, we may reach a point of being unable to care for ourselves as well as we should. The greatest gift that we can give our children is the willingness to adjust to the aging process without battling to hold on to the way we have always done things. Readily accepting the realities of our situations lessens the anxieties that our offspring may have regarding our safety. How that happens may look different in each case, but when we begin to defer to the care of others we are demonstrating great wisdom, not weakness. To everything there really is a season.

I’m still quite healthy and capable, but at my age things can change in a heartbeat. I have already instructed my daughters not to listen to me if I become foolish or incapable of making good decisions. I love my home and my routines, but I don’t wish to become a burden on my daughters by fighting their attempts to keep me safe. I keep thinking that I want to create a kind of living will for them in which I state my intention to trust them with their decision in the future. I would like to do this while I still have total control over my mind. Perhaps if I put my thoughts in writing, my children will be able to show me those documents if I balk later. It will be like a kind of insurance policy for their well-being and mine. They won’t have to second guess their decisions because I will have made it clear that I trust them to know when I need to give up my car, my home and my independence. 

I hope that I will actually be much like my grandfather. My health is exceptional right now and I still write daily, read constantly and teach mathematics to a number of students. I don’t want to take my present status for granted because I have seen so many situations where everything changed rapidly. I want my daughters to be certain that in my right mind I realize that a time may come when they must take control of my future. It will lift the burden of uncertainty and even guilt that often comes with eldercare. I want to be like my Grandpa and my son-in-law’s granddaddy as well. They were incredibly wise men who gave their families the gift of peace of mind without any strings attached. I can’t think of anything better. 

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