Mama R: Living it up at 97


altshul headshotSara Altshul
AGS Staff Writer

Until a few months ago, my mother-in-law lived alone in the Brooklyn apartment building she’d owned for 40 years—“alone” only in a manner of speaking.

Over the years, her sons or daughters occupied two or three of the other apartments in the building; now, one son lives above her and another lives next door. Both look in on her several times a day.

At 97, Mama’s sense of humor is still sharp. Up until recently, she knew to the penny how much money was in her bank accounts. So when she forgets that she’s asked one of us the same question three times in 30 minutes, we all understand. She uses a walker to get around and still never misses a shower, wedding, or other family event.  A few months ago, 40 of us celebrated her birthday at a Chinese restaurant, at her request.

As her frailty became more obvious over the last year, we hired an attendant to look after her during the day. At night, one of her sons would usually have dinner with her (often, Mama cooked the meal herself), or her daughter would come by with groceries and prepared several meals for the week. We created a rotating schedule so that one of us stayed with her over the weekends.

But still, we worried. She’d nap much of the day, she kept the lights off (her thriftiness is a family legend) and she seemed to lose the zest for life that was her hallmark. Another hallmark? Her stubbornness. She adamantly refused to move in with any of us, despite the fact that several of us have homes perfectly set up to accommodate her.

After weeks of family discussions, we decided to see if she’d consider an extended visit to my sister-in-law’s home, a short car ride away in Staten Island. To our surprise, she agreed. That visit has now lasted a couple of months.

To our amazement, Mama has regained her energy, and she now seems more like her happy self. She’s taken up knitting again. Her work is the pride of the family; everyone owns at least one of her pieces. She now sits in the light. Four of her great-granddaughters who live nearby often come by to visit and talk about her remarkable life story. She’s even reading Italian romance novels! And though she didn’t dance the tarantella at her grandson’s recent wedding, she was there in a glittery blue gown, having fun with her loved ones. She actually looks younger than ever.

Which brings me to a recent study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. In a nutshell, it said that older adults who spend more time on pleasurable leisure activities, such as reading, knitting, and visiting with loved ones, are better able to hold off dementia. They are also better able to hold off delirium after surgical procedures. Delirium, a sudden confusion, is a serious problem that can hasten institutionalization and even death.

It’s clear to me that my mother-in-law is living proof that those researchers hit on something true. Keeping up with your hobbies and being surrounded by loved ones can, at least for Mama, match the power of a fountain of youth.