This is a photograph of my grandma and my daughter. I'll admit it is a little dated. Grandma was only 95 years young in this photo, today she is nearing 99. We have been officially celebrating her birthday with a big family party every 5 years. We began the tradition on her 80th birthday and we are looking forward to next year's 100 year celebration. My Grandma is amazing. She lives in a retirement home in the independent living apartments. She dresses beautifully every day, gets her hair done weekly, continues to write letters and carry on meaningful conversations. She would lament her eyes, ears and knees don't work as well as they once did, but we should be so blessed.
When it comes to planning a milestone birthday party , the hall, the cake, the invites, the menu....those are fairly easy decisions. For me, the only thing on the to-do list that is difficult to cross off with a feeling of total satisfaction- is the gift. I think over the years we have done a pretty good job at coming up with sentimental and meaning gifts, but at 95 we were stuck. We had run out of "things" we could happily give. For her birthdays and holidays I rotate through a list of gifts, sometimes selecting stationery, other times soaps and lotions, or occasionally a new over-the-head necklace. For 95, I wasn't happy giving the usual suspects.
I gave myself some thinking time. I do my best thinking in unplanned moments and some of my greatest ideas have come in the shower, to the hum of a blow dryer, or in the car on a rare solo drive. This time I happened to be working in the yard. It was late winter or early spring (sometimes the two blend together here in the south!) and I was tending a flower bed. I was thinking Grandma loved flowers and perhaps there was an idea there somewhere. And then my mind wandered back to a program I had seen on television not long before. It was a documentary on the traits of centenarians. It featured several centenarians from around the world. They analyzed their lifestyle, diet, attitudes etc... There was one man from California, I believe he was still a practicing heart surgeon, who said he liked to hang out with young people, because they kept him young. He used the old crab in a bucket example of what happens as we age. He didn't like to talk to old people because the complaining got him down, just like crabs in a bucket. One crawls up and the others pull him down.
My Grandma had lived in her own home until shortly before her 95th birthday. She decided it was time to move to a smaller apartment and away from some of the chores and hardships in caring for your own home. My fear for her was changing her environment, although there would be more people around, would be like crabs in a bucket. At 95 she was probably one of the oldest residents at the center, but being around 80 year olds didn't constitute hanging out with young people! I wanted to make sure she was still engaged and connected, so the letter of the month gift was born.
The concept was simple- gather family and friends and send them a reminder email once a month to mail something to Grandma...a card, a letter, photographs of the kids, artwork from the kids...anything she could open and touch. A full mailbox gives you bragging rights at the senior home too. I thought if I could get a list of relatives you could do this for a year, Grandma would stay positive and connected. When I told her about the gift, she had tears in her eyes.
As the months progressed I realized there was a benefit to my gift I had not anticipated. For the cards, letters and photos she was receiving, she was writing back. She was finding meaning, purpose and an activity to keep her mind engaged, her spirits up and her heart connected. At the end of that year, I thought "why stop now?" and I continue to send out a reminder every month. She may not receive letters daily, but I know her mailbox is fuller because of them. I will continue sending them as long as she is celebrating birthdays. Which brings me to next year...what gift would be suitable for a 100 year birthday party? Believe it or not, I have an idea, a really great idea I got in the shower...so stay tuned!