As I changed, they
didn't; as long as I
they had always
looked the same
and acted the same
BY KARA L. AMIS
'm surprised I never thought about it before. It happens
to everyone, yet it never occurred to me until I saw it. I
saw how many more gray hairs and wrinkles my father
had when I went back home. I saw my mother becoming
more forgetful, saying things like "You never told me
about that" when I knew I had. For the first time, I saw that
my parents were growing older.
It seemed like a revelation but it shouldn't have been.
There are more than 50 million Americans 55 and over.
Since the large baby-boom contingent is now reaching 40
and more, the median age of the nation's population is
getting older, too. So it seems strange that I never thought
about the consequences of my parents' getting on in years.
Because I'm the only child, I suppose I was closer to my
parents than many kids. That doesn't mean that it was any
easier growing up for me than for anyone else. My mother
and I are so much alike that we fought constantly over such
little things as why I preferred bare legs while she preferred
panty hose. My dad and I did everything together: watched
football, went to amusement parks, played Ping-Pong,
everything. He was my best friend. We had our share of
problems and moments of happiness like all families. Yet as
I changed-gained height and teeth and lost fat, they didn't.
For as long as I could remember they had always looked
the same and acted the same. They were at sort of a constant
age to me, almost ageless. Each of their birthdays seemed
just a change of number, not a change of years. They were
always "40-something" or "50-something," I'd tell my class-
mates, often finding it hard to remember what the some-
thing was. But this year, it will be 60 for both of them, a
number you don't forget.
Stories of their childhood are more important now. It's
funny to think of my father and his friends trying to outrun
the first cars they'd ever seen in their country town. I smile
when I think of my mother as a teenager, waiting up for her
older sister to come home from a date and describe the
details. But she also waits up to hear my details. Hearing
about my folks as kids makes me see them not just as parents
but as people who can age. They say age depends on your
state of mind. But when my mother can't remember how old
her brothers and sisters are and jokes about forgetting (or
trying to forget) her own age, it makes me think how the
mind and body are affected by time. For instance, after 26
years in secondary education, my father is retiring.
Maybe it's because he was a high-school vice principal
that Dad always seemed so young, even though he would say
that working with kids every day will make you gray over-
night. Still, he liked his work and his golf, fishing and
gardening. My mother was involved with her alumni associ-
ation, sorority, the church and arts-and-crafts classes. May-
be it's because they did 50 things at once, as well as take care
of me, that I thought it would always be that way. But when I
came home from college, I realized things were changing.
My father was planning to leave his job, my mother was
writing her will and they both were deciding to do all those
things they'd always wanted to do. I remember how much it
hurt to hear them talk that way. Not that I didn't want them
to go on their "once-in-a-lifetime European trip" or take that
"luxury Caribbean cruise." It was just that these were the
"things I have to do before I die" plans.
As an only child, I'd always thought of their deaths as
something far off, in the future, yet something that would
ultimately leave me all alone in the world. So I spent a great
deal of time preparing myself to be independent and self-
sufficient. I became rather daring-driving into strange
areas of town to learn how to find my way back, going to
stadium-size concerts alone and, unassisted, moving furni-
ture twice my size, just to prove I could do it if I had to. And
while my parents would loudly protest, I would stare calmly
at them and reply, "I have to know how to do things by
myself . . . you won't always be here."
I had tried to prepare myself mentally; emotionally was a
different matter. Listening to their plans forced me to deal
with it fully. What would I do without them? My best
friend's father had died last year. It was the first time I'd
ever known someone who was there one day and gone the
next. It was a terribly numbing feeling. I remember the day
one of my father's friends died. His face was shocked and
worn as he searched through the paper for the obituary. I
wondered if he felt frightened for himself.
Living together: I also wonder what I would do if they became
ill and unable to take care of themselves. As much as I love
them, I don't know if I could live with them again regularly.
My mother's warnings about eating right and wearing pan-
ty hose are fine over the phone but not on an everyday, full-
time basis. Yet I don't know if I could refuse to care for them
myself. After all, they cared for me for 20 years!
Those retirement homes you see advertised with tree
names like Woodhaven and Oakhill seem rather cold and
sterile-like a holding place for the old. I'm sure many of
them are wonderful for those who chose to go there. Yet it's
hard to imagine putting my parents in one. My parents are
an essential part of my home, like the stairs and the rooms.
Take them away and there is no home, just the house. So
what would I do? I don't know-probably just ask them as I
always have. What they'd want would be most important.
But for now what's important is getting used to the fact
that as I mature, so do they. The 65-and-over population
grew twice as fast as the rest of the population in the last two
decades. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the ratio of
those over 65 to those under 65 will be 1 to 8 in 1990,1 to 6 in
2020. I won't be alone in thinking about this issue.
In the meantime, perhaps I'll ask my parents what they
did when my grandparents became elderly. I'll find out how
they felt and what they'd want me to do. Between us, per-
haps we can figure out how to deal with their aging. It's
funny that I never thought of it before. But now that I have,
I'll try to make our years together very special. Because
someday I'll be the aging parent to my child.
Kara L. Amis majored in film and video production at
Notre Dame and is now a graduate student in journalism at
New York University.
46 NEWSWEEKOON CAMPUS