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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Old Love, Within Limits

In 1967, when my father and stepmother married, they were considered old.  Or, at least, at 56, my father was.  Bess was seven years younger, still in her 40s, though it was hardly a May-December romance.  Each had been married before, their spouses now deceased, and each had grown children.

The marriage lasted 40 years, longer than their first marriages had, ending only with my father’s death, just four months shy of his 95th birthday.

My father and Bess were very companionable and well suited, lending their skills and talents equably to the relationship.  Bess was an excellent cook and kept their 2-bedroom condo in good order; my father handled both the finances and their social life with ease.

That social life blossomed once they moved into an independent living facility in 2002, a move encouraged by their children.  We’d known for a while that our parents--my father now in his ninth decade--would be better served living in a communal setting, especially one where healthcare professionals were on hand to respond to any crisis.

And so now it seemed that my father and stepmother were finally, really old, though my father, as his doctor once told me, was a good imposter, hiding the inevitable ravages of age pretty well.  He’d been a salesman all his life, and the posturing such a profession often requires, served him well as he recovered from various falls and dealt with both legal blindness and poor hearing.

Then the inevitable happened and before our parents could move into the assisted living floor of their building—a move we and they had all agreed was next—my father, following yet another fall, ended up in the nursing home part of the facility, a separate building on the same property.

Ever the optimist, my father expected he’d quickly recover—hadn’t he always?—and return to living with Bess.  And even if it meant their moving from independent to assisted living, it would be just four floors down from there current 6th floor apartment, and within easy reach of the facility's social events they regularly attended with their favorite fellow residents.

Which is why he was so devastated when the facility’s manager told him in a meeting to which we were all invited that policy dictated otherwise: the health and well-being of Bess, who they determined was in no position to be my father’s primary caregiver, his live-in aide, had to be taken into consideration. My father would remain in the nursing home.

Now, I’ve no idea how Bess really felt about this decision—out of her hands, really, and one to my knowledge that she in no way influenced nor likely even understood.  Born in 1917, she was of a generation of women who took it as their lifelong duty to care for their husbands at home, and for as long as needed.

What I did notice, though, was that when I'd visit them out at the facility--my father in the nursing home, Bess in their original apartment--she seemed calmer, more relaxed, gaining back some of the steadiness she'd lost as my father's health declined while they were still living together.  She even became more social without my father's help, finding a group of women residents with whom she appeared at ease.

My father didn't last long in the nursing home, a not surprising turn of events, falling again, then finally landing in the hospital and dying.


This bit of family history came to mind after recently reading, and ruminating on, a Modern Love column in the New York Times: "My Father's Last Romance."

For me, the piece illuminates just how much may be changing in this "new" old age, especially among those within shouting distance of Boomers, a generation that saw so many cultural revolutions as they made their way into and through adulthood.  For while older people luckily still fall in love, they may now make different choices about how to respond to the "in sickness and in health" part of their relationship--whether it is officially codified in marriage or not.

At least Arlene, the "romance" part of the article, did. And unlike my stepmother, she did so without benefit of an official policy.  All the more courageous, I think, for her having done so.

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