In the last nine years I’ve lost my father, my step-father and my mother. They were, respectively, 76, 89 and 83 when they died, so by anyone’s count, they had long lives. Two of them were in restraints in their final illness and they all had varying levels of lucidity during their last months. With all of them, it was hard to see them make decisions about their lifestyle that, in the long run, contributed to their ill-health.
My parents lived through the Depression and the War years, which marked their entire generation, but they came of age when America was booming with post-war affluence. Rosie the Riveter had been displaced by all of the returning veterans and the country worked hard to put women firmly back in the home. Men were expected to be the strong, silent provider while women were expected to be fulfilled by raising children and keeping a clean home.
A thriving Madison Avenue was selling a vision of life that was new and enticing to young adults who had grown up during the Depression: leisure time. Manufacturers and developers were working day and night to bring more and more modern conveniences to the young Americans who had flocked to the suburbs after the war. Even though women were expected to stay at home instead of working, everything was focused on reducing the amount of time it actually took to perform these chores. I have told people, only slightly sarcastically, that my mother and step-father never moved a muscle in their adult lives if they could pay someone else to move them for them.
During the 50’s and 60’s smoking cigarettes and drinking cocktails every night was the norm. At least those were both strong parts of the vision of “glamour” that the new televisions in every home were promoting to their audience. When I watch any movie filmed during this era, I am amazed by how every scene seems to take place in a smoke-filled room and by how everyone has a drink in their hand in any scene taking place in the evening. You rarely, if ever, saw anyone on film doing anything more athletic than playing a round of golf between drinks.
Both of my father figures drank as hard as they worked. We were all taught how to mix drinks to their standards: three fingers of alcohol, (regardless of the size of the glass,) ice, and then if there was any room left, mixer. To this day, I will send a drink back if it’s not as strong as the drinks I mixed as a kid.
Both men would order whiskey based cocktails when we went out to eat. All the kids would beg for the maraschino cherries that adorned the drinks. We were only allowed to eat the cherries after they had finished their drink and the cherries had thoroughly soaked up the maximum amount of alcohol. I am absolutely convinced those maraschino cherries are the reason I love whiskey as an adult.
My mother quit drinking when her children were still young, but she started taking mood altering pharmaceuticals in the 1960’s. In that era, it was far easier for a physician to prescribe a pill than it was to actually listen to what might be bothering a woman. As a result, Mom was quick to medicate herself rather than proactively do anything that might prevent the pain she suffered from.
My mother and father both smoked for decades. Daddy would quit periodically, but Mom was devoted to her cigarettes clear up to her dying day. One of my strongest childhood memories is the vision of the glow of the burning ember of her cigarette as she smoked in bed in the dark. Usually, I would see the glow from my own bedroom, but as I grew older I spent a lot of time in her room talking to her in the dark, the orange orb punctuating our conversations.
All three of my parents were believers in the rigid work ethic as defined by their generation. Both my father and step-father were ruthless in their pursuit of success. They climbed the professional ladder quickly and with laser focus. Mom went back to work for a while when all of her children were in school and she was bored to death staying home. However, when she married my step-father, she eagerly gave up her job when he “asked” her to. I will always remember the shock I had when at age 14 I heard my mother, who espoused women’s lib attitudes, told a friend of hers on the phone that her new job was taking care of my soon-to-be step-father.
Heavy drinking, smoking and not enough exercise were all contributors to the ill-health of their final years. As their daughter who loved them, it was painfully difficult to watch them be slowed down and in pain when a few healthier decisions would have made a world of difference to the quality of their days. Unfortunately, nothing anyone told them made much difference in their long established habits.
I know there were men and women of their generation who stayed active throughout their lives, but at least for my parents, the life of leisure and indulgence was too enticing to pass by. I miss them all, but I’ve learned a lot about how I want to live from watching their health deteriorate.
I quit smoking almost 20 years ago and I cannot imagine how I would feel if I’d continued that habit. I try to drink plenty of water while at the same time I try not to over-indulge in my deep abiding love of cheeseburgers and whiskey. Every time I feel like not exercising I remember how hard it was for my aging parents to move their bodies because their muscles were so badly atrophied from disuse.
We all must age and, eventually, we all must die. That’s the cycle of life and no one can change it. What we can do is change our daily habits to make that journey into our twilight years healthier and less pain-filled. I could not change my parent’s habits, but I most certainly can change my own.
I have told my yoga classes for years that if I’m going to fall and break my hip when I’m old I’d like it to be because I’ve fallen off the table I was dancing on, not because I lost my balance walking across the room. Let’s make that a goal for all of us.