Written By: Isaac Prazmowski
The room is loud with music and multi coloured lights flashing across the floor. Three courses have been consumed and feet are starting to tap with the urge to dance. Not the place you would usually find my Grandma. And yet there she was, walking into the centre of the floor and turning towards the bride, her close friend Sabrina. The music grows quiet and the crowd shuffles in their seats to get the best view. And as my Grandma begins to speak about first meeting Sabrina’s uncle and mother, and then getting to know Sabrina as she grew up, I think, “yeah that’s my grandma”. Surrounded by tables full of mostly strangers, a long way from home, Grandma’s voice is steady and projects the self confidence and pride that I have come to associate with her. And I couldn’t have been prouder to be her grandson.
My view of aging and growing older has largely been experienced through the lives of my grandmothers. As the Bronson Hub has developed and our activities have taken shape, I have often been driven by the question, “what would my grandmothers want?” Colleen Henderson (Grandma) and Amelia Prazmowski (Babcia) have been a part of my life since its beginning. Now eighty-four and ninety-one years old respectively, they have lived lives embedded within their communities. In Oshawa, Ontario, Babcia raised five children and has been a staple of the Polish Catholic church up the road from her for 60+ years. Grandma raised three boys, first in Mumbai, India and then in Ottawa, worked as a Director for the federal Labour Relations Board, was the president of the Royal Commonwealth Society of Canada, and most recently, was chair of her condo board. These are capable women. And as they’ve grown older, I’ve witnessed firsthand the challenges that older adults face in aging.
In 2019, both my grandmothers faced health challenges. Babcia suffered heart arrhythmia and had to have a pacemaker inserted to correct it. She then had a subsequent stay at Cedarcroft Retirement Residence during her recovery. Although Babcia did quite enjoy her stay there, she was still eager to get home. On the other side of the family, Grandma had a stroke, and lost mobility and coordination followed by a short hospital stay. She has been undergoing rehab since the stroke in September. My grandmothers have both battled back extremely well from these illnesses, but it has not been easy.
The experiences of my grandmothers are part of a general trend. As we age, we face increasing health risks that can lead to a decrease in our engagement with society. Until her pacemaker surgery at the age of 90, Babcia had a part-time job at St. Hedwig’s parish, helping with the financial administration. Likewise, after overseeing an extensive renovation of her building, Grandma chose not to return as condo board chair due to the workload.
Although the difficulties that older adults face require changes in how they live their lives, they do not necessitate an isolation from society. My grandmothers have both had to change how they contribute to society and how they reach out to others for support. This in itself is not a bad thing. For 80 years, my grandmothers have supported others, from their children, parents, and family members, their neighbours, their country and parish. As Grandma says, much of what you contribute to others depends on what you believe you can contribute, and she has continued to believe in her capabilities as she has grown older. But from me to them, I’d like to say, “Babcia, Grandma, it’s okay to put your feet up”. The transition to relying more on others is incredibly difficult for many older adults to make and I am proud that both my grandmothers have started to reach out to and rely on others more than any other time in their lives. Babcia is now visited one to two times a week by a home support worker and a cleaning service. Grandma is always dropped in on by her neighbours, and now has a meal delivery service, and I’ve been kicked of her condo more than once when her church congregation showed up at the door. Support from family, friends and acquaintances has been shown to be related to more positive health, including a lower incidence of certain chronic conditions and better self-reported health. The stories of my grandmothers tell us about how our lives must change as we age, and indeed how we might struggle with these changes. But they are also stories that enlighten us about how our society congregates around each other when we need a lift and how this can help us make healthy transitions in aging. We do this both formally and informally and we are lucky to live in a country that works hard to make sure no one is left behind.
As we move forward in this period of increased isolation and fear about Covid-19, we must continue to gather around each other with support and empathy. Babcia had to stay home from church this past weekend and instead watched mass on TV. Grandma is herself under 14-day isolation after returning from a close family friend’s wedding in the US. If you are not already familiar with the health risks of Covid19, you should be, but we must also remember that there are side effects to isolation, and other supports that are necessary. I am closer to my grandmothers now than I have ever been, partly because as I have grown older, I have learned to look at them not as just as a part of my family, but as individuals with hopes and histories and accomplishments. Grandma is no longer just the person who took me to McDonalds when my parents wouldn’t and Babcia is not just the one who always had the best stash of candy (the candies stashed in Babcia’s drawer will always have a place in my heart). My grandmothers are not at all close to finished with this world, and as Babcia said when she was told she would need a pacemaker in order to live, “well I’m not ready to die just yet.” So think about the grandmothers and grandfathers in your life, give them a call, and see if you can learn something. I hope that I will continue to learn from my grandmothers for a long time.