I'm lucky my parents forge ahead of me, through life. They are trailblazing, and I appreciate the path. They have had a long and passionate life (both a good thing and a bad thing), and are working out their own road map for aging. Their parents died at a younger age than they are now, and in less good health. In fact, Mom and Dad are exceptional; not only have they survived in good form, but they had five children, who have all grown to adulthood and had children. As I get older, I realize: this is not easy stuff to get through life with, intact. It takes genes, work, and dumb luck.
My mom took care of her mother for many years, after Grandma became less mobile but refused to leave her home. Constant caregiving took a lot out of Mom, and out of Dad, too, since he was on his own when she was with Grandma. Out of this experience, Mom gained a stong conviction (Mom has lots of strong convictions, and some are scary, but I do admire her stubborness). She said numerous times: "You kids are never going to take care of me. When I can't live on my own, I am going to a nursing home." The upshot of her conviction--and of her amazing good luck, manifested in regular bingo, lottery, and punchboard wins--is that she is not dependent, period. She still takes care of herself and Dad in pretty good style, and only recently, at age 88, gave up bowling and choir. She just knew it was time, and she handles it well. She now spends more time baking cookies (incredible amounts of them, which she freezes and forces on family and strangers), crocheting, playing piano, and working in her small yard and garden.
One of the issues they face in their 80's is losing friends. As they age, their friends die from all of the attendant maladies of old age. The last of Dad's siblings died over a decade ago, and he is now approaching the family record age of 92, set by his Aunt Ethel. Mom's 3 brothers have long since died, but her two sisters--one 90, one 82--are still living independently. They live in houses that are right next to each other, and provide caring companionship (when they are speaking), since their husbands died long ago. There are also a few cousins, from both families, to round out their ties to their childhood identities.
However, many of my parent's friends have preceded them in death. Its hard for me to tell how that affects them; they have each other, my brother lives nearby, and they live in a small community where they have been known all their life. They seem to do pretty well each time they lose someone. I think that part of their acceptance of loss is their knowledge that they, too, are on the short list of life. They have the courage to keep going, despite their increasingly isolated position--which is no small thing. The very fact of their surviving into old age gives them friends and admirers: Dad's status as a WWII vet, and their mutual status as survivors, insure that they are known and acknowledged by a considerable number of people. Everybody wants to see living proof that they can grow old and live well. Mom and Dad provide that assurance and hope, just by walking around and talking.
When I wonder about growing old and losing people in my life, I therefore look to my folks. I remember especially how my parents reacted to the death of one of Dad's friends. He and Dad were friends for as long as I can remember. They always went hunting and drinking with each other. He and his wife, and Mom and Dad, were part of a group of good-time friends for decades. Eventually, however, the friend became ill, then incapacitated, and, finally, died. I thought my parents would be very upset over this loss of a close friend. Dad went to the funeral. Mom, however, did not. As she said later without a trace of guilt or self -consciousness, "It was my bowling day and they couldnt get a sub." Further, she noted, his wife wasn't feeling well and "I knew she wasn't going, so I figured why should I go if his wife didn't go? It would make her look bad, anyway."
This is heavy stuff to sort out as I consider Aging Gracefully. Facing death and the loss of friends is not a walk in the park. However, it can be faced with practicality. My parents have been nothing if not practical, as they walk that road. They have their cemetery plots picked out, their will made out. Mom has Dad's military stuff all ready to go, to accompany his Color Guard funeral, which she knows my brother will commandeer in his role as the VFW Commander-in-Chief. These decisions have brought them comfort, let them put the final touches on their life. They've also afforded them some small source of pride, knowing that they'll be remebered in style.
Life goes on, and life's connections go on, despite the losses. There are rules to follow, even for growing old and losing friends, and losing oneself. A neighbor who died years ago showed Mom the dress she had picked out to be buried in, as she waited for cancer to take her life. Plots are plotted. Cookies are baked. Bowling leagues depend on you. Don't show up other people who are surviving. Keep up your spirits and your courage. Keep forging ahead.