Uncommon courage

In a recent post by blogger Lynne Spreen at AnyShinyThing.com, she makes the case that longevity isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I couldn’t agree more.

When people learn that mom lived to be nearly 102, the first response is often, “You have longevity on your side. You’ll probably live to be 105.” Oh goody, I think. But then out loud I say, It’s a crapshoot.

Mom was the only one in her family line who lived past 86, let alone 100. She was an anomaly and none too happy about it.

She used to say, “growing old isn’t for sissies,” a common-enough cliché these days. Until you’ve lived it or witnessed it, it’s just that, a cliché. She knew the reality.


When I met Ben in 2004, he told me his parents made a pact when they were first married that they would take themselves out before needing a nursing home. After his dad had strokes in his late 60s, they took their sailboat into California’s Monterey Bay and sunk it, with them on it. Ben and his brother grieved their passing, but accepted their decision.

I was angry. How could they do that? I asked him. But over the next few years while caretaking mom I let go of my judgments about their decision. Even though they ended their lives knowing that their daughter-in-law was pregnant with their second grandchild, and that child is now 33 and questions why her grandmother chose to leave, I found a way to understand.

Not long ago, Ben’s friend told him he will drive into the mountains when it is his time, emulating the native peoples. When old age made them useless to the tribe, they stayed behind when the tribe moved on, or wandered off into the forest. By the time Ben’s friend realizes it’s time to drive into the mountains, he may not be able to do so. If you’re in a nursing home unable to stand up, no one is going to drive you into the woods.

Ben’s parents feared that loss of control, which is why they made the decision when they did. They preserved the right to decide for themselves.

It would not be my choice, nor would I recommend it, but I respect it. Only they could tell their granddaughter if it was worth it.


Mom was 95 in 2004 when Ben told me about his parents. Mom kept telling me she was “ready to go,” and had been saying that for years. She had fallen numerous times, nearly died of pneumonia in her late 80s, fell down 16 stairs at 90, got cellulitis and then lymphedema, had skin cancer surgeries and minor strokes before the age of 95. She had lost three husbands. She was tired.

Each time my brother came to visit from California and prepared to return home he would say, “Well, this may be the last time I see mom.”

But each day she arose, did her exercises, brushed her teeth, washed her face, put on makeup and prepared herself for the day. She did not appear ready to go, but she was simply making the best of each day presented to her.

Then she was diagnosed with lymphoma deep within her pharynx (her family doctor gave her Sudafed for three months before an ENT specialist saw a tumor that was choking her to death).

After the first of two surgeries she refused further treatment–until the tumor grew back a second time. Eventually, radiation put her in remission.

After that were more falls, strokes, broken bones, and the desire to give up.

She lived six more years.

She was able to avoid nursing homes because she was blessed with a remarkable constitution and bounced back after each medical drama. She had adequate funds to keep her in a nice retirement home, money to pay for part-time caregivers, and a daughter willing to be her long-term advocate and caretaker.

The day mom died March 4, 2011, she was still living in an apartment by herself. She was dressed nicely, her hair coiffed, makeup on. She would take a morning nap before going down to lunch, where she would eat alone because the last of her friends were gone. She was nearly deaf and far older than anyone at the home, making it difficult to make new friends.

When the housekeeper came for the weekly clean, mom asked her to tie the bow on the back of her blouse. When the housekeeper left, mom took her nap and when she got up to leave for lunch she first went to the bathroom. There she died on the toilet,  alone at the end. But just like Ben’s parents it was on her terms.

Both life and death decisions took uncommon courage. And each example is on opposite ends of a spectrum.

A few of us boomers will live to be 100 or maybe older. (And may you be blessed with uncommon courage and good health).

Many of us will live at home, either with family or on our own until we are urged to retreat to some kind of assisted living or a nursing home.

Many of us may be blessed with sudden death before some calamity assails us with years of nursing home care.

Others of us will simply stay at home, tending our gardens, until one day someone makes the 911 call. Instead of staying home and saying our goodbyes, we will be rushed to the hospital where they will perform CPR, crushing our ribs before they insert the feeding tube. May we all avoid that scenario. (hint hint DNR on fridge).

However we may end up, the boomer generation is swelling. If our health care system continues to be a downstream model (treat the symptoms after they’ve already developed) and Medicare provides for surgeries but not preventative care, we are in for it.

In fact, if growing old isn’t for sissies, then uncommon courage is required of us all.

It’s either a will to live or a will to be free when one dies. Or both. How we organize that is the task of the aging and of the ages.



  1. So much wisdom in this post, Martha. Thank you for saying it. I hope I die before I get to the point your mom did. My condolences.

    I’ll be sharing this everywhere. Best wishes.

    • Thanks Lynne. I appreciate your comment. I started to comment on your post, because it, too, contains much wisdom. But then I discovered I had too much to say. 😉 Thanks for the inspiration.
      This is a huge topic. Our medical system will begin to find relief in at least one area, if we can, as aging boomers, accept responsibility for our ultimate demise and do it with as much grace as we can muster.

  2. I read Lynne’s post that you linked and left a comment there, and pretty much wore myself out as far as any recitation of the past. As for the future? Let’s just say I’m struggling to get off some weight and get in a bit more aerobic exercise. My goal is to keep myself out of our medical system as much as possible and for as long as possible.

    My greatest fear is that, having been born into the best country in the world, I’m going to end up dying in a third-world country. I’ve lived in one of those, and the signs here are everywhere. However long I live and no matter what happens, I intend to face it with grace and dignity – even in the midst of a culture that’s apparently decided those qualities no longer are important.

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head–fearing dying in a third-world country. I agree the signs are everywhere, which gives me a sense of urgency. I’m working hard to get my feet back in working order so I can go back to walking. I’m paying out of pocket to do so. And my goal is to keep myself out of the medical system as much as possible. This past year was enough for a life time. The rub comes when, like mom, there’s a treatable condition and without treatment one would have face a ugly demise. I wonder if treatments will even be available if or when we reach that age. Our mothers got the best of Medicare, it seems.
      Check out Flamingo Dancer’s latest post http://flamingodancer.net/2013/08/24/design-by-committee-at-the-smorgasbord/ for a gritty and funny post on the same subject.

  3. As you know, I’m in the middle of this process with my father. I’m finding that everyone connected to him has an opinion about these end-of-life issues. As you point out, once the hospital is involved the process of bringing you back has begun, and the patient’s choices can become limited. That DNR document can prevent a lot of misery. I’m happy for you and your mother that she left on her own terms. Such dignity at the end should happen for us all. Thank you for both posts – “Ready to Go” and “Uncommon Courage.” I read them both with great interest.

    • There are so many layers to this end-of-life stuff. It’s interesting that I portrayed mom has having her dignity at the end. It was hard fought for and I did everything (almost) that I could to help her preserve it. But near the end I did things I regret. I had the caregivers leave notes to each other and in some they discussed her “bathroom accidents.” This was mortifying to mom and I remember lecturing her on how important it was that we all be informed. Makes me sick to my stomach to think about it now. On one trip to the dermatologist she kept having to go to the bathroom. It took her ten minutes each time. Then she’d shuffle back out to the waiting room and there we would sit…until the next bathroom visit. Finally they called us back and she said to me, “I have to go.” I told her she’d have to wait. Then she crapped her pants and I made her wait through the appointment because she needed to get stitches out.
      I’m not sure I’ve told anyone that and I’m not sure anyone will read it here, hidden away in the comments, but I have tears in my eyes as I write it.


  1. “Ready to go” | Connecting Points - [...] A few months after I started dating Ben in 2004, I remember standing in  his living room crying, believing…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *