How To Talk To Your Mother About Aging

With Mother’s Day on the horizon, many of us are readying our calls, emails and those antiquated things called greeting cards as expressions of appreciation, love or to avoid Mom Guilt for the next four months.

As if the mother-daughter relationship isn’t difficult as it is, as the years pass it may get even trickier to navigate. I recently learned that saying “I love you” on a dedicated day is easy but saying “I’m worried about you getting older” isn’t as simple as it sounds. I might have been spared months of awkward conversation with my mother if Hallmark made a special card that said, “Are you taking care of yourself?” If you’re searching for the right words to start a deeper discussion on aging, health issues or any heady topic this Mother’s Day, here’s how I started the dialogue:

First meet my mother, as she is on a casual Friday night, chatting to me on the phone in her soft Texas accent, “Now Mary, I know I’m ramblin’ on like a drunk asshole, but I TELL YOU, the sunset is just amazing, I wish you were here.” If I had a dime for every time my mother called me slightly tipsy from cocktail hour, I might not be so tight on rent money every month. Thankfully she’s not actually drunk; she’s just a lightweight and giddy at the end of the week and after a glass of white wine is only when she’ll admit that she wishes I would move closer. Living 1,700 miles away in Manhattan, I miss her terribly and am thankful for our very open communication and a friendship that is closer to that of girlfriends rather than a conventional mother-daughter dynamic. “No, Momma, you’re not being an asshole.”

My mother is 60, an age not old but not young either. Quite attractive, she is undeniably youthful in spirit, regardless of her physical age. Healthy and active all her life, Momma’s example taught me about yoga, the runner’s high and how to get down on the dance floor. While I’ve never taken our frank and loving relationship for granted, I was naïve to think that some topics might be difficult to discuss. I mean, if she’s the first to hear if I kissed a boy the night before, how hard would it be for her to talk about her body? I was to learn.

Last summer, she and my father came to visit me in New York, her one time city of residence and my new home. We all exhausted ourselves, running around like tourists with our heads cut off in the summer heat. One evening we retreated to the hotel for a rest and refreshment and somewhere amid the distraction of the evening news, opening chilly Miller Lights and changing for dinner, everything paused as I noticed my mom laboring to push herself up from the bed to bring herself to standing. Like, the way old people do. While it was only an instant and she continued about her evening as normal, I was struck with the realization that my mother was aging in a significant sort of way.

Over the years she’s developed degenerative disk disease in the back, arthritis in the arms and bursitis in the hips but the litany of ailments had never erased the mental images of my mother, beaming, her face flush from one of her long runs. Trying to wrap my head around the fact that my mom isn’t as vibrant now as she was in my memory, I was seized by intense worry: Is she taking care of herself? Is she exercising enough? Is this a horrible downward spiral into a helpless and immobile life?

Since our phone conversations are more about our daily lives and less about her persistent back and hip issues, her ailments are easy to forget as I go about my busy days in the big city, between corporate meetings and social engagements. And now that I’d seen their effect, they are all I could think about. I decided to bring her back to New York for a girls’ weekend, my reasoning being 1) this would be the perfect time to raise my concerns about her mobility and the extra weight I’d noticed since my last trip home. I could give her a pep talk about keeping up with exercise. Even though she’s the one who taught me how to be healthy and active, I worried that as the years added on it was getting easier to do less. And 2) talking aside, I simply needed to absorb her exponentially more, while I still had her. For the first time I understood that she wouldn’t be around forever.

So two months later we battled the masses at Century 21, lunched at Le Bernardin and binged at Sephora. After a dinner of champagne and cheese at Bryant Park Grille, Momma and I lingered in the park and I laid it all out.

“Momma, I’m concerned…” I started. I mumbled that I could tell things were changing and that she was exhausted more and even though I didn’t mention weight directly or blatantly say “you’re getting old,” I still managed to mess it up. Turns out, if you’re planning to question if the woman who raised and cared for you for 30-plus years is caring for herself adequately, you should expect that she might take offense or at least be hurt at the suggestion. She repeated to me that the arthritis and other problems were painful and that she has started walking laps around the school yard, but it wasn’t enough for me. All I really wanted to hear was that she would do everything she could to live forever. Or at the very least, that she would not go gently into that dark night. I wanted her fighting the aging process every step of the way. For my sake, if nothing else.

In the cab back to my apartment we sat in silence. Tears streaked down my cheeks. I was upset that I couldn’t find the simple words to say that I wanted her with me always. She was hurt, thinking that her only daughter was disappointed in her and only wanted her to be skinny again. Even in the remaining days of her visit we still didn’t find a resolution.

Momma went back home and little by little in the months that followed she started making a point to tell me she’d been walking or what doctors’ visits she’d been on. As difficult as it had been to start the conversation of aging, she knows now that I want to hear about it. I’m only starting to realize now how isolating the aging process is: there’s no end, except the one that no one wants to think about. So just as she was there for my girlhood crushes and heartbreaks, I can be there to listen about the aches that come with this stage of life. From these recent conversations we began to understand why this topic was so sensitive, leaving us both tongue-tied for weeks. We’d seen it before.

My consuming fear was based on precedent. My grandmother had been beautiful and active until her health quickly began to degenerate in her 60s. I feared going through what my mother already experienced — reaching a point when her mother could no longer speak, the day when her arms wouldn’t know to reach out to me. When we might become unrecognizable to each other. I’d forced myself to say something, anything, in a very vain attempt to prevent that as much as possible.

Since opening this subject, we’ve both come to realize that this — along with yeast infections, temperamental men and the pitfalls of synthetic hormones — is just one more subject we’re not afraid to discuss. Talking a few weeks ago again about the night in Bryant Park, she reassured me, “I wasn’t offended. And you’re right, this change is getting easier and easier to accept. I’d gotten a little more accepting of the weight and the pains but I’m not ready to lie down yet. I never faulted you for bringing it up because it wasn’t anything I hadn’t thought of myself.” While there may never be the “right” words to say what needs to be said, that’s just a wonderfully complex part of the bond between mothers and daughters. For me, saying something is what mattered, because how would it be if she wasn’t there to worry about me and I didn’t worry about her?

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    • t-bone

      I can relate to the desire to do what is best for our parents. It’s our turn to give back. I definetaly appreciate the struggle to broach these topics, but know the importance. Whether or not we botch the discussion, I think our parents still realize as we mature, we appreciate more fully the adult struggles, and don’t want to see them experience that, just like they didn’t want us to fall off the bicycle…nice article!