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The Oldest Old Project: Darlene Costner

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Darlene Costner of Darlene's HodgePodge was, as she explains below, otherwise engaged and unable to write a story for The Oldest Old Project. But she published her view from age 83 on her blog, and I want to include it here too.]

Ronni, of TIME GOES BY, had a writing project open to all of us over 80. Unfortunately it coincided with my preparations for my trip to Colorado. I simply didn’t have the time to give it any thought or to write an essay. Now I have more time to think about the changes in my life between the ages of 60 through 83.

I was widowed exactly 24 years ago this month. My daughter was living with me then but she needed to get on with her life and moved out sometime after that. The stress I was under during those years caused such a blur that I really can’t remember when she left or for how long. She did move back home later when she was suffering with a severe back problem. For several years I had a revolving door.

I was soon living alone for the first time in my life. I had recently lost my job because my hearing level deteriorated and I was quickly under great financial stress. During that time I was unsuccessfully trying to find employment.

I kept busy improving my house. When my husband was alive I would call on him to do the most menial tasks, like changing a light bulb. (Please don’t send me any “How many morons does it take to change a light bulb? I’ve heard them all). Out of necessity I discovered skills I didn’t know I possessed. I painted and wallpapered rooms, repaired drywall holes, replaced every door knob in my house with the European style handle. mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges, etc. I was surprised and pleasantly gratified to find that I wasn’t as helpless as I thought.

When I was able to go on Social Security at the age of 62 I thanked Franklin Roosevelt for his foresight and crossed my fingers hoping that I would stay healthy until I was eligible for Medicare; Luckily, I didn’t need to see a doctor during that period and was, again, grateful when I could add my name to the roll of the insured.

I remained healthy and wisely invested the small insurance amount from my husband‘s policy. I was fortunate that the interest rate was paying 12% and my investments grew rapidly. I had always wanted to see far away places with strange sounding names so I cashed in some of my Mutual Funds and took to the friendly skies for a trip to the British Isles, France and Italy. I used three different tour groups and planned my itinerary between tours. It fulfilled the dream of a lifetime.

I am very frugal by nature (not cheap, you understand - just thrifty) and I managed to add to my travels by visiting Spain, Morocco, and a cruise of the Greek Isles. At the age of 75, I made my final European tour.

I have friends in Switzerland and, using their home as my base, I visited Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. This turned out to be the most exciting trip of all because I was totally on my own. Since I was not with a group I could take as long as I wanted in the museums, leave early if I wished, and I was in full charge of my itinerary. I even managed to see Neuschwanstein castle in Germany and it became the highlight of that trip.

While I saw many wonderful things on that trip it also made me realize that my days of traveling by myself had come to an end. Schlepping my suitcase on and off trains, staying in less than desirable places, sometimes sharing a bath, dealing with the con artists at the stations, etc. were just too much for an old lady. There were days when I simply wished that I was home in my own bed because I didn’t feel well and was too tired to enjoy what I was seeing.

I believe that’s when I began to feel old. My last trip coincided with the sale of my house and buying a town house. Up until my mid seventies I did not feel old and was constantly amazed at the fact that the calendar said I was becoming an ancient. I continued to do all of my work, but physical limitations were beginning to appear. (A caveat: my hearing loss was the first limiting problem and it had occurred many years before so I have to qualify my last statement.)

Rapid changes in attitude accompanied declining energy in my 80’s. I no longer miss going to concerts, plays, and other events that were once desired. Somehow, very little seems worth the effort. I am quite content to stay home with a good book or a DVD. I fall asleep watching TV, or even a good movie. I go to bed when that happens no matter how good the show might be. At first I tried keeping a regular bed time routine then one day I thought, “Why bother?” Who cares if I go to bed at 9 pm and get up at 3 am. I am setting my own schedule and not apologizing for it. My doctor does not approve.

I also find that I do not suffer fools gladly now. I am ashamed to say that I am not as tolerant of people who believe things just because Oprah, Rush or some politician say it's so. I admire people who think for themselves. It should be the other way around, I know. I should be like the Beatitude for elders that says, “Blessed are they who never say, you’ve told that story twice today.” I am doubly ashamed because I know I am guilty of the very thing that irritates me.

I no longer care if my house is spotless. It used to be a matter of pride that my furniture was polished, the floors clean, the windows washed and all was in order. While I was never a Mrs. Felix Unger I did try to retain my image. No more. I think that might be a matter of self preservation because I am aware that I am unable to do the hard work necessary. I shove it onto my list of things that I won’t worry about. Now I am more like Phyllis Diller who joked, "I clean my house twice a year whether it needs it or not."

My mental closet is full of things that I will think about tomorrow. I have become a regular Scarlett O’Hara.

Like Mort said in his post on this subject, decisions are much harder now. I just don’t want to have to make any. I want my life to run smoothly without complications and a mix up on a bill can drive me to distraction. I hate having to deal with computer problems, being overcharged, etc. Truth to tell, I don’t handle stress well at all. There are also days when I think I need a keeper.

I have fears, but they are no longer about things that go bump in the night. I fear a stroke or a disability that will rob me of my independence. I do not fear death; I fear what may come first. Everyone wishes that they could just go to sleep and not wake up. Very few are so blessed and even though I hope I am one of those, I fear I may not be. My worst nightmare is that I might become a burden.

There is much to be said for being 83. I am contentedly happy and I am more aware of small pleasures. I appreciate each extra day that I have been given. I love being responsible for no one except me, and I enjoy the freedom that I now have. Old age brings many problems, but it is also a time of great joy.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, find out who earned the September 2008 Excellence in Storytellling Award from your votes.]

Comments

Dear Darlene, I read your entry this early morning and smile.
Smile because we have so much in common. Much you have experienced I have been right behind you. 10 years younger then you I am concerned over the same things you are. Am on a similar journey as you in the past. Wish you lived down the street because I would spend time with you - listening, learning, and sharing in person.
I am proud of you dear online friend.

Great story.

Wait... it's not just a story. It's a life.

Thanks.

May I simply say "I love you"! What a great and inspiring tale of life's travels.

Lovely inspiring post, Darlene. I admire the way you live your life, doing things when and how you want to.

I both smiled, as well as had tears in my eyes reading this description of the last twenty years or so in your life. You seem to have lived a full life. I am happy you did manage to travel while you could. May your days be blessed with a plenitude of quietly joyous moments.

Yes, thank you Darlene for this. I hope you get your wish, but not too soon!

I had read this on Darlene's blog and thought then how encouraging it was and am glad it was brought here to be sure everybody sees it. She does encourage me for how life can be and how we can make the most of where we are-- wherever that might be.

I don't wait 'til Thanksgiving to count my blessings. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about how lucky I've been for all of my "three score & 15" Today, I'm thankful that I found "As Time Goes By" and the support I've found here. Like today's post by Darlene.

"Somedays, when I'm feeling low..." I think of the things that people have written here about what is in store for me on the road ahead and I smile and say to myself:
"See, it's not as bad as you thought. People live well into their eighties and retain their good spirits and their sense of humor" I can't help but notice as well that I am not, by any means, the only one whose capacity to "suffer fools..." seems to diminish with the passing years. We all understand, far too well, that life is short, too short, to waste on what I would call the deliberately ignorant, i.e, the "fools"

Thank you Darlene.
It was a pleasure to read this.

You are a wonderful writer and I so appreciate knowing that my life is not so different from yours.

Darlene, I am "only" 71, but I can identify so much with the story you have shared. Thanks for this project, too, Ronni. I haven't visited for a while, but I'll try to get by more often. My two living sisters are 82 and 84 and they feel so similarly to how you spend your time at this point in your life. I am a human doing still but getting very fussy about "gadding about." Too much energy. I want to spend my energy on the people and projects I really love--and sometimes just curl up with a book or DVD.

Thank you for the lovely description. I am 60, and I have felt old forever. Reading this makes me feel I must revamp my thinking, for I shall never be this young again. Thank you so much.

Hope herein for all of us in our early 60s contemplating what conventional wisdom would have us believe is to be rapid decline. Thank you, Darlene.

A beautiful post, Darlene. I loved reading about your travels (I'm 57 and have only been to Canada and Mexico). Nearly eight years ago my mother passed away in her sleep as she had strongly wished (willed?). Even better, I was asleep in her recliner at the left side of her bed and my husband was asleep on the extra twin bed we had at the right of her bed. Your "revolving door" reminded me of times with my mother prior to my marriage - precious!

Thank you all for your very kind comments. You have not only made my day, you have made my week - maybe even my month. I deeply appreciate the nice things you said.

Darlene....there is a song by Irving Berlin..."when I'm tired and I can't sleep-I count my blessings instead of sheep and I go to sleep = counting my blessings". That is what your post reminded me of today as I get ready to go and sit quietly in a chair and count the blessings of memory of my dear parents and grandparents and family that have passed on. The Yizkor Prayers of Yom Kippur which I have said in Shul for many years - I now say at home because I just can't handle large groups of people anymore. You have to do what brings serenity and joy and I am happy you have had that "wonderful life" of good travels and friends. My Mother took sick in Feb. of 1997 and died in Aug. of 1997 at the age of 83. I am 65 and not a day goes by - that I "count my blessings" for having had such a wonderful Mother and Dad, too. (and the times that I caused them worry and joy)
I guess that is what it is all about this thing called - LIFE.

Glad you wrote this, Darlene, and I had the chance to read it. Amazing what we find we can do for ourselves when we have to. You certainly describe what I've always believed, and still do, that to quote a cliche' -- life is what we make of it. I think attitude is so critical and clearly you have a view of life that makes living worthwhile.

Darlene, you've expressed so well the progressive path your life has taken. I think back on my mother and grandmothers and fear that they grew into their elderhood, which should have been the most liberating years of their lives, without realizing how capable they were, without anyone having told them "you did well!" All their lives they were expected to provide their free labor, raise the children into productive adulthood, and never once think of themselves first. In spite of the admirable jobs they did, when they were widowed they were made to think that somebody needed to take care of them. They never had the opportunity to find out what they might have been, and that makes me sad. I can only work to break that cycle as I look ahead to my 70s and beyond. Your fears are my fears, your hopes are mine. I can only add the hope I have, that when I'm in my 80s, I will pass on to my own two daughters by example how good it feels--not sad--to finally just be. What can be more Zen like than that? Thank you for sharing your life.

Thank You, Thank You Darlene

What courage you have, and the gracefulness to settle into your own space with such good energies! Very best wishes to you!

Bravo Darlene, You are wise about aging. You have chosen what matters most at this time in your life. Stress free. Who cares about a little dust and if you sleep in and are up all night. All your life you lived by a schedule that was dictated by what is expected of us all. You have adapted well , and are comforted by what you have accomplished on your own. You are an inspiration to many.

One of the greatest joys of blogging are the heart warming responses to a story one has written.

Thank you so very much for your most kind comments. I am deeply touched.

Brava, Darlene! Scarlett O'Hara was a survivor too, with style, so maybe having the wisdom to think about it tomorrow (rather than stay up all night) is something we all need to develop. I'm now 63 and have begun to look ahead and think "carpe diem..." -- but there is a whole different feel to it than there used to be. My best friend turns 79 this December and she, like you, is a constant inspiration because she knows what's REALLY important. Thank you for writing, it helps us all!

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