A Formerly Cool Gen Xer Aging in Place

I can’t believe I am having conversations with friends now about “Aging in Place.” 34 years ago this weekend, I packed my Subaru XT Coupe, popped in my favorite “Bob Marley” cassette tape, and moved to Kansas City to start the next chapter of my life. I started graduate school and earned a certificate in gerontology studies….an abstract concept I never expected to really experience personally (at least so soon). I would sit in mind-numbingly boring gerontology classes learning about the “Plaza Relocation Project” and Medicare, only halfway connecting with the stories I heard about the negative impacts on aging Kansas Citians when the Country Club Plaza began transforming from an aging-friendly urban oasis to a collection of upscale boutiques and restaurants to attract tourists. There used to be a substantial drug store and grocery store on the Plaza, conveniences enabling residents to comfortably transition into their later years at home instead of “care facilities.”

Beginning in the early 1980’s, long-time aging residents of high rise apartments were swiftly upended as part of a larger “plan” to make the Plaza less residential and more commercial. As a graduate student, I lived in one of the last remaining high rises near the Plaza in the sweetest studio apartment (forever my favorite) among aging residents. It had a restaurant and nail salon and was a community of people on the brink of extinction. A few years after I moved out, The University of Missouri tore it down (Twin Oaks Apartments, then dubbed “Twin Croaks” by the UMKC students because of the frequent EMS visits) to build student housing. I used to ride the elevator with visiting actors with the Missouri Repertory Theater and was often greeted by a Humpty Dumpty character getting off my 11th floor telling me, “I’d like to ride in your car!” It was a colorful life but not sustainable according to the local community planners.

Today, I think about aging in place every day. In fact, my husband and I recently tried to watch the film, “I Really Care” (Rosamund Pike portrays a corrupt legal guardian who deftly divests competent and financially stable Dianne Wiest of her decision-making rights and locks her “in a home”), and quickly turned it off in disgust and horror. That’s less than a decade away for us! Could it be us? Surely not. We have friends making decisions all across the board about retirement: one couple recently decided the Midwest wasn’t for them and moved to Florida to become boat repairmen in a coastal town. Another friend dropped her second child off at college and began her dream nomadic lifestyle of full-time travel writing and speaking. She meets up with her adult sons a few times a year at Airbnbs. In shock, I asked her, “But WHO will get the same china and tree out for Christmas each year?”. She laughed at my absurd question because she had been planning for this transition and shedding possessions that weighed her down for many years.

I know where I fall on this very important question: I am staying right where I am as long as I can and giving back to the community that has given my family so much. I will be open to new friendships with people of all ages. I will volunteer for organizations like CASA and Big Brothers Big Sisters. And I will continue the work I recently began at an outpatient medical rehab for people with disabilities for as long as I physically can. Eventually, I hope to write and publish a memoir. My husband wants to get a lab puppy and “tinker” around the house. We both want to learn Spanish. He has a huge treasure trove of family photos he plans to cull, organize, restore and possibly publish. We won’t be bored. Hopefully we will have grandchildren and we will walk with them to the creek in our neighborhood and get ice cream in a neighborhood creamery.

Imagine my delight yesterday when one of my close girlfriends who has always planned to retire with her husband on the West Coast confided, “We are going to age in place.” Immediately, I imagined us as old women visiting the Nelson Atkins Museum and dining at Rozzelle Court together. Or riding the train at the Kansas City Zoo with our grandchildren. A fellow “ager in placer ” has emerged and I am overjoyed!

At our age, my husband and I are starting to watch people shed their professional lives and chase their dreams, sometimes taking them far away. I can’t imagine living anywhere else but the Midwest. We once owned 34 acres but did not have much time to enjoy it. There may be a future acre or two with a pond and an old farmhouse also, who knows. My friend’s announcement over lunch yesterday gave me hope and inspiration for the not too distant future we have waiting. According to “Blue Zones,” a longevity research project, people who live longest move naturally (e.g., walking outdoors, gardening) and have strong social/community ties. They also eat a plant-based diet fortified with lots of legumes and nuts. I look at it this way: if I have to move my body and eat healthy foods, I’d rather do it in Kansas City with the people I love most. Happy Aging in Place!

Holding on and Letting Go

Yesterday it became official:  After 20 years of marriage, I am officially 31 pounds heavier than I was on my wedding day.  But I am too busy getting sober, raising teenagers, losing my reading glasses, finding myself, and holding on to the time I have today with loved ones to really give a damn.

Another thing became official in the last week:  my husband believes in the regular “God Winks” I am receiving from my Dad.

I have had some really awful moments in my struggle for sobriety these past 156 days - and Daddy always appears at just the right moment, in the form of a feather.
I have had some really awful moments in my struggle for sobriety these past 156 days – and Daddy always appears at just the right moment, in the form of a feather.

Mike witnessed it as we gazed outside his office window anticipating the start of the Kansas City World Series Parade last week:  out of the blue, a single feather gracefully frolicked in the wind and made its way to the pavement just beneath us.  He looked at me with wonder and said, “Dickie’s here!”.  Yesterday, I was feeling like a little kid again, preparing to meet a new friend and try a new AA meeting, and wanting to just go home and hide beneath my covers.  I ran out to my car before my friend met me for coffee before the meeting to look for my phone:  a single feather lay just beside my car door (it was NOT there when I arrived a few moments earlier).  Dad was reassuring me, “Go ahead and go to that meeting.  You need it.”

I’m holding on and letting go to everything and everyone these days, it seems:  my beautiful teenagers; my youth (and former figure!); things that used to matter but really don’t anymore; my dreams of who I wanted to be and reckoning with the reality of the time I have left to fulfill them or make new ones.

Grandma Rhetta gets a BIG hug from 5-year-old Mario for the beautiful quilt she made him.
Grandma Rhetta gets a BIG hug from 5-year-old Mario for the beautiful quilt she made him.

I am still thrilled and sometimes even enraptured by the journey of life – including the scars I carry as a mid-lifer.  It’s wild to ponder the things that matter more to me now that I know I don’t have a lot of time on this Earth.  I care more about being gentle and kind than winning, at anything.  I worry less about deadlines and more about resilience and protection (social work lingo that I love!).  We live among the wounded and I want to be a healer.

Sally Wilcox. my dear friend, passed these along to me when my family was treated unkindly in a small town. She became a Deacon in the Episcopal Church very late in life and never shied from
Sally Wilcox. my dear friend, passed these along to me when my family was treated unkindly in a small town. She became a Deacon in the Episcopal Church very late in life and never shied from “sticky” situations. I will always cherish Sally, these earrings, and the brief time I had with her.

I guess the trick to living a life of Grace after 50 is to know when to hold on and when to let go.  I cannot be in this state perpetually!  Luckily, I have had some pretty wise friends share their wisdom with me along the way.

Remember the movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes”?  I picture myself often as the character Kathy Bates plays – Evelyn – that awkward midlife woman, pathetically hanging on to a shell of her former self until she meets Jessica Tandy’s character – Ninny – the older woman in the nursing home who shares the story of her relative, Idgie, in segments for Evelyn,  and gives her the gift of strength to prepare her for old age.  I had a friend like Evelyn in Winfield, Kansas.  Her name was Sally Wilcox and she was a writer.  She volunteered to write an article about an old dairy house on our land adjacent to a neighborhood development.  Mike and I saw beauty and grace in this old structure.  Our neighbors saw blight. They wanted it torn down, we maintained it had Historic value and submitted to the City’s requirements that it be boarded up.

Who would have thought that a historic dairy house would be the
Who would have thought that a historic dairy house would be the “mountain we chose to die on” in our small town experience? We learned a lot, thanks to Sally.

The dairy house was designed and lived in by a relative of a well-known architect from the region.  Louis Caton, a musician, lived there for a period of time and was a known local artist and musician.  We romanticized the past and the things that transpired in the old dairy house  but to the neighbors, it represented a hatred they carried for the former developer of their neighborhood and broken promises.  It was ours but, in the end, it was not.  Our fight did not matter because the neighbors won the right to tear it down, after all.  Looking back, I realize the dairy house was just a symbol to Mike and me of something beautiful we had found and wanted to “tend to” for our children.  We imagined a future for them in rural Kansas and all the cool things they might get to do with this beautiful barn like structure set beside a wooded canyon that many children, including Osage Indian children and pioneer children, had played in before.

But maybe we held on to the wrong thing at the wrong time for the wrong reasons which now, ultimately, does not matter.  But I cannot stop thinking about the twinkle in Sally Wilcox’s eyes as she interviewed us and published the article in the local newspaper about it.  In all her wisdom, Sally thought the fight was worth it and she liked us, unlike our neighbors!  One afternoon before a public hearing about the condemnation of the dairy house we were forced to attend at the City, Sally gave me the earrings she wanted me to wear bearing the words:  “People are no damn good.”  I will always love her for her strength and courage and carry with me the memory of my very own “Evelyn,” who helped me confront one of my first ugly midlife battles over WHAT to hang on to and WHEN to let go.

So, here I am, almost 50, getting feathers from Dad and remembering a brilliant older friend who gave me many gifts of wisdom.  In their own ways, they both sustain me as I daily weigh what’s worth my energy and what’s not.

The 7 Friends Everybody Needs

My parents never told me whom I should choose as a friend, but they definitely showed me. My Mom often spoke of her very first best friend in the 1930’s, an African American girl named Carliss.  They played every afternoon together for hours in the alley behind Mom’s house.  An unusual pairing for the time period and rural setting in the South, to be sure.  As for Dad, he had 3 best friends his entire life and a million acquaintances that he treated with kindness and respect always.  As a kid growing up in a small town, I felt proud knowing that my Dad was well liked and known as a decent, fair, funny person.

With those concepts about friendship on my heart, I have lived a very colorful life sustained by many friends from vastly different backgrounds and perspectives.  Here are the 7 ESSENTIAL friends I think everybody would benefit from knowing:

  • A Kindergartener – Because of their innocence and devotion to making their mark, a kindergartener is about as easy and charming a friend you will ever have!  In my own experience, of course, these were my 2 children, with very different personalities though the same deadly sweet kindergarten-ish enthusiasm.  Isa would hop in the car each afternoon from her long day at school and give me the “dot report” – who received the most velcro-backed ladybug markings on their name to represent bad behavior.  She never had more than 1 and was very proud of this fact!  Mario, on the other hand, shared that his teacher only gave them “7 minutes to daydream,” but later added that she had told him he was “very handsome”!  If you have never been friends with a kindergartener, I recommend seeking one out at once!!!
  • A Septuagenarian – Edith Marsh lived in the apartment below me when I was in my mid-20’s and she was 93.  She had lost nearly everybody she loved in her life except her daughter who visited weekly.  We became best friends!  I would come home from work to find her sitting in her dark kitchen with the television on watching her favorite Kansas City Royals.  She would bring me homemade molasses cookies (I never had the heart to tell her I hate molasses!) and on snow days we would sit on her “divan” and chat about her husband, Homer, who had been so loving and devoted to her.  Edith told me I shopped too much and that I needed to “reel in a husband”!!!!  I was devastated when she died and lonely for a long time, in spite of my many friends my age.  Edith knew something about life that nobody else I had ever met understood – you can’t enjoy it by being a whiner!
  • Someone “Differently Wired” – I have had lots of friends that fit in this category but today, the one that sticks in my mind is another neighbor in the quirky little apartment building I lived in as a single woman.  I think her name was “Ann.”  It seemed she was a bit crazy, as all she did was carry a bag and cheerfully pick up trash in our neighborhood.  Of course, I admired her because of her smile and her bright red lipstick!  So I started talking to her.  Turns out, she believed that the service she was providing was all to honor Jesus, the man to whom she had always compared other men and the reason why she never married!  As odd as “Ann” was, I am always attracted to people who are just a little bit off – because you can learn so much from them if you listen to what motivates them!
  • Someone Who Has Lost Everything -I am cheating a bit here because Buddy was really my husband’s friend, only mine by “association.”  But he inspired us both.  First, because he was a hard-working man and someone from outside the “silk stocking” Law Firm world that most of our friends came from.  But second, because Buddy was surviving the tragic loss of his wife and daughter who were killed by a drunk driver.  He lived everyday with unspeakable sadness and carried the weight of this huge loss on his heart.  Yet Buddy made a decision to try to enjoy life and do some things he had never tried before – a “bucket list,” of sorts.  He was a simple man with lots of wisdom and we were so lucky to know him.  He died about 18 months after losing his wife and daughter in a tragic hit-and-run motorcycle accident.  Even though his life ended senselessly, we had never seen anybody so wounded make better use of the time they had here on Earth.  We both learned from Buddy that attitude is everything.
  • Someone Who Loves Music– We all have friends like this! The one that sticks out in my mind is my Dad’s college friend from Hawaii, Martin Luke.

    Don't Go Under The Old Apple Tree!
    Don’t Go Under The Old Apple Tree!

    He came to visit us a few times as I was growing up and he always brought his ukulele – an instrument that was very strange to me!  My Dad would absolutely light up when Martin would pull out the ukulele and together they would sing the songs of their college years in the 1940’s like “Don’t Go Under The Old Apple Tree”.  I watched them together enjoying this strange music on an odd instrument – 2 friends from vastly different backgrounds – and I understood that music can bring people together who would otherwise never have anything in common.  Very cool.

  • An Idealist – I had never met one until I was in Graduate School and Myra came to speak at a Gerontology Class.  She brought Dan Callahan’s controversial book about setting limits on scarce health care resources by restricting access for patients over a certain age.  And I argued with her.  And she smiled and thought I was “cheeky.”

    My mentor and dear friend, Myra, the first idealist and feminist I ever knew!
    My mentor and dear friend, Myra, the first idealist and feminist I ever knew!

    From there began a long friendship and working relationship with this remarkable woman with wildly liberal ideas!  My life would have been so dull if I had never met this beautiful woman, the Idealist in my life, Myra.  I am still so grateful.

  • Someone Who Is Extremely Kind to Animals

    Our less-than-photogenic dog, Tango, with my daughter, Isabella, her
    Our less-than-photogenic dog, Tango, with my daughter, Isabella, her “handler.’

    I never really gave much thought to animals, their needs and special gifts and their unique place on this planet, until I became a Mother.  Yes, I had pets that I loved as a child and young adult, but it wasn’t until I witnessed the transformative power of love between human and animal with my own children that I began to think of them as very special.  In the last few years, I have met many people who do amazing things in the animal rescue world and I admire them so much.  And the brave friends who help us “escort our beloved pets to the rainbow bridge” I could never do without.  There is one such friend, in particular, Colleen, who does this for people having a tough time saying goodbye to their dear pets – family members, really.  Colleen has a special gift and if you don’t know someone who would lay down their own life for an animal, I recommend you seek one out – they are beautiful souls!