Friday, January 14, 2011

Grandpa Fred is 100 years old

Before the New Year becomes the Old Year, I have to catch up on a few items.

My father Fred Howard - Danny, Ian, and Jennie's Grandpa - turned 100 years old on December 9th, 2010. He lives in Ann Arbor in an assisted living facility with my mother, who is only 97. Although he doesn't see or hear very well and can't get around without his walker, he is still holding doors open for women and children, making sure my mother gets her medications every day, and managing his life with as little interference as possible from the nosy people who keep coming by to check up on him.

I was lucky. My parents were always available in a crisis when Danny and Ian were younger. Mostly they kept me company when my husband would have to go out of town and I was stuck here alone with the kids. Come to think of it, those occasions were crises and if I hadn't had my parents' help, my sanity would have been in jeopardy. Even in recent years, when Ian was still living at home, although my father was not able to help much with actual care, he took over laundry duty, a task that kept him busy and feeling useful.

In his long life, he has always been busy and useful. He went to the University of Chicago on a full scholarship that he won in a city-wide writing contest in High School. He dropped out during his first year to become an actor until the depression hit and he had to come home and find a real job.  He worked in bookstores and eventually met and married my mother who had a young son, my half-brother John. In World War II he joined the Army Air Force and flew missions over North Africa and Italy as a bombardier. He bailed out of plane over Sicily and sent my mother the parachute handle for Christmas that year.

He worked at the Library of Congress for 15 years after the war where he was on the team editing the Wilbur and Orville Wright papers. He co-authored with my mother a collection of wartime letters and later published a novel. After the Library of Congress, he worked as an editor for many years for publishers in the Washington, D.C. area. At the age of 77, he published a biography of the Wright Brothers called "Wilbur and Orville", a book that was highly acclaimed and for which he later won a Christopher Award.

Now that my parents are very old, I am seeing first hand the differences in how we deal with disabilities in old-age and developmental disabilities that occur early in life. For one thing, we don't do as much pretending with people who are elderly: we don't expect them to work after they have reached the point in their lives where that is no longer possible or desirable and we don't berate them for choosing to live in "congregate" facilities if that is where they want to live and will get the best care. We also don't showcase the healthiest and most capable people who have attained a great age and pretend that that is proof that everyone can attain the same level of functioning into old age if only we have high expectations and adhere to an ideology that denies any other outcome of old age. Living well to an advanced age has as much to do with genes and luck as it does with attitudes, expectations, and circumstances over which we have no control.
Fred and Janet with grandson and family

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