“Never grow old, ” the character of Elizabeth I admonishes in Orlando.
Watching my grandmother travel through her nineties, I often think of those lines from Virginia Wolfe’s 1928 novel. As my parents and I attempt to offer my grandmother the support, security, and encouragement she requires and deserves during her aging process, I cannot help but notice how painful this process, at times, is for her.
When I experience these feelings, I am always struck by my great-grandfather’s oil painted portrait from the 1900’s staring down at his daughter, handsomely dressed in his Imperial Austrian uniform. He died at the age of fifty-five. In not one way does he offer his daughter help, guidance, or assistance in her life now. She is traveling uncharted waters, trying to make sense of this process somehow.
To live to be her age years ago was unthinkable. The very few managed it and they usually lived in Siberia and consumed yogurt non-stop. This is not the case now; scores of people reach their nineties and beyond. But how does one manage it when looking forward is not so easy psychologically and emotionally, and when, despite relative good health, one is just not able to do what one used to do? Many friends have passed away, siblings, one’s partner. The world has changed and yet, there one remains.
Those of us in the mental health professions might look to the eminent psychologist Erik Erikson and his work on the stages of psychosocial development for guidance. At this stage, according to Erikson, my grandmother is grappling with making sense of her life up until this point, deciding if she accomplished what she thought fit, and if she is pleased (Ego-Integrity v. Despair). I know that she does not despair over her life and, upon speaking to her, it is quite clear that she has developed a type of wisdom that one would expect in their nineties. So, to assist her by helping her to make meaning of the past would be a fruitless endeavor. It is something else which is missing, and I, for one, am not completely sure what it is.
However, as mentioned, I do know that it is uncharted territory. There are no examples of exactly what to do; my great-grandfather offers no wisdom here. Therefore, the responsibility rests with all of us, as a family unit, to help my grandmother to guide herself as far into the future as the Divine sees fit to take her. To help her give herself new and fresh meanings – yes, to be proud of the past – but to embrace whatever the future may hold for her over the weeks, months, and yes, maybe even years.
To do it together, as a family unit – this is what we Jews do best, in fact. As a family, as a community, and as a people, we always have done best when we have done things together. Therefore, we too will age with my grandmother, and help her explore the unfamiliar terrain, fully supported and made secure in the thought that both the past and future is hers to explore and to make meaning with.
Because, more fittingly, as the real-life Elizabeth I once said, “It is the end that crowneth the work.”