Historically, aging has been a difficult topic for women and when it is talked about all, most likely it is in a negative light. Seldom do we read about all that women gain as we pile on the decades. Anne Simpson, 81, is changing that by discussing the complete picture.
In “Do You Feel as Old as You Are? Conversations With My Granddaughter,” Simpson answers 40 questions asked of her by her 21-year-old granddaughter, Alison Leslie. The book explores ideas about aging and how women have related to one another across generations.
Simpson’s history includes a lay diploma from United Theological Seminary as well as farm life. Her husband, Bob, was a United Church of Christ minister and when he developed Alzheimer’s disease they wrote a book about their long journey titled “Through the Wilderness of Alzheimer’s: A Guide in Two Voices.” Anne also has had work published in several anthologies, including “Bound Together Like the Grasses,” which won the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award for poetry in 2013.
The questions in Simpson’s newest book illuminate the bond between two generations of women — one just entering adulthood; the other approaching the years when one wonders how much of life remains. Are you afraid of dying? How do you want to be remembered? Is there anything that you really regret or wish you did differently when you were younger? What do you hope to live to see? These are the questions asked and answered with love and wisdom.
Understanding that these questions were similar to ones that many other young women would like to ask their mothers, daughters, aunts, or grandmothers, HealthCentral asked Simpson for an interview via email, which has been lightly edited here for length and flow.
HealthCentral: Anne, in “Conversations With My Granddaughter,” your goal was to encourage women of all generations to talk with each other about aging. Is this book more of an interview from your granddaughter’s side or do you explore your own feelings as well?
Anne Simpson: I definitely explore my own feelings in this book. I had been writing vignettes about aging for several years, about new experiences I was having and changes I noticed — physical, mental, emotional. Then one day I happened to ask my granddaughter, when she was home from college, if she ever thought about growing old and if she had any questions about aging.
I didn’t expect much of an answer because I would never have talked to my own grandmother about such things. Like politics, sex, or religion, aging was a subject we didn’t discuss when I was growing up. I would have been embarrassed and Granny might even have been ashamed. But my granddaughter’s generation is much more open and on the way back to school she wrote out 40 questions. I was delighted!
HC: Ageism is rampant in our society. I will add that, in defense of young people, many older people look at them as vapid and self-absorbed. Do you see hope for more understanding as time passes or do you think this is just how generations have always viewed one another?
AS: I suppose the older generation has always been reluctant to change, liking things just as they are and as they are “supposed to be,” while the younger people want fresh — new — now, becoming impatient with those who are older and slower and more deliberate. But grandparents often have a special bond with their grandchildren and their relationships can open the door to mutual respect and understanding.
I think it is important for elders to be open about their thoughts and feelings and to encourage young people to be the same, so that we may listen and really see, teach, and learn from one another. After all, the younger generation wants to be where we are someday, living to a ripe old age even if we are infirm, because the alternative is worse.
HC: How can the kind of closeness that you and your granddaughter experience be developed by others? Do you have any advice for mothers and grandmothers who are experiencing a gap in communication with their daughter or granddaughter?
AS: The job of grandparents is to love the children just as they are, knowing that they may be in a very different place tomorrow. Adolescent actions can be irrational, and moods mercurial but we have been through this stage before and we know it will pass.
In fact, it may be easier for grandparents than for parents to overlook green hair and tattoos and ripped jeans, to counsel children when they make foolish or dangerous choices.
But if we love them all, the circle inevitably will come ‘round to the time when they are able to give us the very support they need now.
HC: Does your religious foundation have something to do with your approach to your granddaughter?
AS: I’m sure it did. Much of my religious foundation came from living on a farm when the children were young and the practical learning from those days complimented the book learning in seminary.
Our days’ activities were governed by the weather and grounded in the cycles of nature. Planting — tending — harvesting. Birth — death — rebirth. Growing and growing old was a natural process; death was a painful but inevitable loss. “To everything there is a season,” the preacher says. (Ecclesiastes)
It was hard work but I felt at home in the universe, grew comfortable with unanswered questions, and felt immense gratitude for my family and my place.
HC: Would you have been able to have this conversation with a son or grandson?
AS: Yes! I have an amazing son and two “above average” grandsons with whom I can talk openly. Aging is not gender-determined, of course, but it is important for me to talk about it with women friends and family. I hope it will be as comforting for these guys to share insights from a man’s point of view.
HC: Do you have any final words of wisdom for us as we strive to reach across generational divides and grow closer to those we love?
AS: Yes, I do. These come to mind right away:
- Remember what you did — how you felt when you were young.
- Don’t waste time with regret — ask what it can teach you.
- Become the old person you want to be.
- Whom do you admire?
- Are there elderly people you do not want to be like?
- Reach out to people of all ages — listen to each other.
- Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Laugh at yourself.
- Live with gratitude.
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Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.