A few weeks ago, I visited my great-aunt Anna at the nursing home in Massachusetts where she lives. We spent about an hour together, chatting about her friends and activities there, and, since I had taken my 2 ½-year-old-son with me to see her, the cuteness of small children.
We didn’t talk about old times, my antics as a little girl, or other members of our family.
She doesn’t remember any of that.
My great-aunt will be 105 this year, and actually lived in her own home until just two years ago. At that time she was diagnosed with mild onset dementia, placed under the guardianship of a conservator, and moved into a memory care facility. I’ve seen her 3 times since she moved, and each time it’s more and more evident that she has no recollection of who I am.
I know it sounds strange, but I’m thankful for this.
As a fertility coach, my work is all about family. I help people who want to be parents grow their families. My own family is small and I've been close to Anna my entire life. It's been a struggle for me to see her decline as she became a centenarian.
Until now I'd assumed that the quality of her life was deteriorating, and this was devastating to me. Since our last visit I'm not devastated, but grateful.
Yes, it would be wonderful if Anna and I could reminisce together about the times I visited her when I was little and played in her back yard.
About how I would sit, enraptured, as she showed me photos (slides, in those days) and told stories of her many trips to places like Greece, Israel, and Cuba.
About how, almost 25 years ago, she celebrated my college graduation with me in Pittsburgh.
About how we were sightseeing once in Boston -- she was in her late 80s, wearing a suit and heels, I in my late 20s wearing a sundress and Teva sandals, and I couldn’t keep up with her!
Or about how, just 7 years ago, my husband and I took her to Foxwoods Casino. I blew through my allotted gambling money in a matter of minutes, but Anna won hundreds of dollars. She loved gambling, and often had a lucky streak. Once on a trip to Las Vegas she won enough money to buy herself a new car! It didn’t matter that she didn’t drive.
I had the best of both worlds growing up. I not only had a loving grandmother who doted on me, I had her older sister Anna, who wasn’t necessarily grandmotherly, but was lots of fun and treated my sister, cousin and me like princesses. She took us shopping, sightseeing and out to eat at nice restaurants. She sent us gifts for Christmas and our birthdays.
She was also an inspiration as a strong woman who didn’t follow society’s expectations of traditional roles for women. I don’t know if I’d call her a feminist, but she was definitely ahead of her time.
Anna was born in Boston in December 1911, just four months before the Titanic sank. She was a first-generation American, born to Greek immigrants, and the oldest of 6 children. Her mother, my great-grandmother, lived to be 95, and with the exception of one of her brothers, who died in a freak accident at 17, all of her siblings lived to old age. Her youngest sister is almost 90 and still alive.
During her 20s, Anna helped care for the family through the Great Depression. In her 30s she saw her two brothers go to Europe to fight in World War II. One of her brothers was part of the D-Day landing at Normandy’s Omaha Beach.
Anna never wanted to get married, but she did have male suitors. She also had a career, working for many years at the Internal Revenue Service, where she traveled to conventions in Washington, DC, and was an Executive Committee member of the Federal Safety Council of Boston.
She left the IRS in the 1970s, when she reached traditional retirement age. After that she managed a friend’s travel agency for a number of years, until it closed after her friend’s death. Then she worked for an accountant, until he relocated from downtown Boston to the suburbs with limited public transportation access. Anna, who didn’t drive, had no way to get to work.
Not long ago there was even talk of her working part-time at a bank, doing light office work. Anna liked to keep busy and liked the productive feeling that working gave her. This continues today; in the nursing home she enjoys having jobs like folding napkins.
The first two times I visited Anna in the nursing home I was happy to see her in a safe environment where she's being well cared for. However, I wasn't necessarily thankful for her condition.
After this last visit, I am. Our time together really impressed upon me that contrary to my earlier assumption, the quality of her life, to her, hasn't deteriorated. She has nice clothes, eats well, still gets around on her own using a walker, and gets her hair and nails done. She looks good, and last week she told me more than once that she feels good. That made me so happy to hear.
Anna would be sad and depressed if she could remember that she’s outlived all of her contemporaries, and even some from the next generation who were dear to her. She'd be upset that she isn't able to do all the things that she used to. She’d long for her former life, wistfully recounting times that were happier - to a lucid mind.
Instead, she feels good and she’s happy in her world as it is now. She truly lives in the present moment. I’m so thankful to see her this way, instead of as unhappy or bitter.
She doesn’t recognize me, but there’s a familiarity, and she’s always happy to see me when I visit. I’ll take that.