"I never thought they'd get old so fast," my sister lamented. She was speaking about our parents, now in their early 70s. However, her comments were not about their chronological age, but their mental state.
"They don't DO anything," she continued. "They don't seem to have any interests outside of what they watch on TV."
My parents have not only accepted senior citizenship –- they've embraced it, she says. While in fairly good health, they seem to relish all the aches and pains and other ailments that accompany an aging body. A great portion of conversations with our mother is spent cataloging them all. It's almost as if she is looking forward to the drama of incipient illness.
We contrast our parents' behavior and attitudes to those of my sister's in-laws. A decade older than my parents, these folks have never lost their zest for life. Retirement for them has meant becoming involved with local charities and museums, where they both volunteer. They read, they play tennis and they travel, taking advantage of educational tours offered by groups like Elderhostel.
Unfortunately, my mother and father have never been "joiners." The word "sport" was never in their vocabulary, and I can't imagine them putting up with the regimentation of a guided tour. The only thing they seem to want to do with their days is cruise Costco for free food samples and bargains.
When my sister started having babies years before I did, my folks moved 400 miles north to be near their grandchildren. We have always had a difficult relationship. We're careful with each other on the phone. I rely on Linda to alert me to things that go unsaid. I wondered if I needed to worry about them.
Then, a couple of months after my sister and I spoke, my mom and dad decided to give up the suburban house they’d owned for 18 years and buy a condo in burgeoning downtown Sacramento. A few weeks later, there was new energy in my father's voice. He had attended his first homeowners' association meeting and, by the end of the night, had been elected an officer. It makes sense, as most of the other residents are young working professionals. They don't have a lot of time to deal with the HOA. Why wouldn't they jump to enlist a retired insurance executive?
"Your mother is on the social committee," he informed me. "She's busy planning parties right now."
"How's her back?" I ask, dreading the inevitable list of problems, doctors and medications that were bound to follow.
"You know, it's stopped bothering her," my dad replied. He sounded surprised, as if it was a question he forgot to expect.
He put my mother on the phone and she sounded like her old self -- energetic and lively. And they didn't once mention "American Idol."
I ended the call satisfied that all is going to be OK, and I made a mental note to myself: "Stay involved, no matter how hard it gets." Because involvement –- with your family, your community, serving others -–is the thing that keeps people young.
Donna is a San Fernando Valley wife and mother.