Voices Of Older Women
What They Want To Say... Why You're Not Listening


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VOICES OF OLDER WOMEN

What They Want To Say… Why You’re Not Listening


By Arloa Jane Walter



Introduction

When was the last time you talked with or visited your elderly mother or grandmother? Do you know what is going on in her life? Have you talked on the telephone lately? Did the conversation go something like this?

Mom has called Steve three times and left three messages. The phone rings:

Mom: Hello…

Steve: Hi Mom, how are you?

Mom: I’m fine, but I… [She wants to tell him she needs to have a serious operation.]

Steve: We just got back from Disneyland. I’m really tired.

Mom: Did you have a good time? [She’s worried about how she’ll care for herself.]

Steve: Yes, but there was not enough time to see everything. So what’s up Mom?

Mom: Well. I went to the doctor and …[She’s really scared to death.]

Steve: That reminds me, Carter broke his arm. We had to take him to emergency. Boy, I sure hope the insurance covers that.

Mom: Oh, poor Carter -- how is he doing? [She hopes her insurance covers her operation too.]

Steve: He’s OK now. So Mom, you need something? Oh by the way we aren’t going to be able to come next weekend, Laurie’s parents are flying in from Dallas. So can we change our visit to next month?

Mom: Sure. [She realizes that she should have talked to him sooner.] Well I told you I was having some trouble with my arm and…

Steve: What? I’ll be right there Laurie, Is it OK now? Mom I’m sorry I have to get going; I need to get to Wilson’s soccer game. I’m the coach. So let’s talk later, OK? Bye Mom, love you.

Mom: I love you too, but I need to talk to you about this operation coming up. I’m going to need some [Steve hangs up.] help after and I thought maybe I could stay with you or you could come here and help…

Do you know what’s really is going on in your mom’s life?

This is the beginning of a big change in Steve’s mother’s life--and in his own.

After his father died, Steve never knew how lonely and isolated his mother was. She kept it to herself. Up until now, Steve’s mother had been healthy and independent. This has worked well for both of them as it allowed them to avoid their respective feelings and grief. Mom didn’t speak up and Steve didn’t want to hear. And now with the change in her health, a change that Steve doesn’t even know about yet, his mom will need his help and attention as never before. They really need to talk.

This is a very common situation.

Voices Of Older Women is a book about the plight of older women – their disconnection from their families, difficulties with communication, the sense of loss they feel at being ignored and the losses and missed opportunities their adult children and society at large incur as a result of ignoring them. It is a revealing book about what older women think about life and the world around them. It explores why they hold back and why their adult children don’t want to know what’s really going on. It is also about the wonderful successes and achievements; the valuable assets and unknown contributions they have made to society.

Older women are not heard from much and don’t appear much in our communities and mainstream society. They seem to be invisible, in the media, in the community, in the world, and even in their own families. They have been pushed or have moved to the background for many reasons.

Voices Of Older Women tells the truth about these older women. The truth is that they are very valuable members of our families and society and have much to offer us. They are the natural problem solvers, teachers, holders of life stories, keepers of secrets, skilled craftswomen, peacemakers, social networkers, and business owners. They have raised families, are helpers, supporters and positive thinkers; are generally wise and able to reinvent themselves, make do, and love unconditionally.

But they are also lonely, emotionally in prison, in need of assistance, afraid to ask for help. They are alienated from their families and friends and cut off from the rest of society.

While this phenomenon of invisibility applies to many elderly people in general regardless of their gender, this book focuses on older women because they live longer than men, end up alone for longer periods of time, have lower income, and have traditionally been in last place in society.

And also, this author is one of them.

But other than this, why focus on older women?

While both men and women have many of the same physical problems, emotional issues, losses, and disabilities as they age, women face them sooner than men. Society is not as cruel to men as it is to women. Men stay at their jobs much longer than women whose job was to raise children and take care of the home. Men getting older are “distinguished” while women look “old.” Men are respected by families and looked to for advice and help. Women are not.

By their very nature women are the nurturers and caregivers of the young and the home. They have traditionally been in the background, putting other’s needs and desires first and not taking the time to explore their own talents, interests and desires.

Women need to reinvent themselves when their children are raised and out of the house. They are not needed as they have been. Their role is diminished. Some do this very well others do not. Traditionally older women have not had any guidance on what to do at this time of life. They had to travel on a new journey whether they knew it or not, and make their way in a changing world for them. Some had relied on their husbands for many things and subsequently never learned about finances, insurance, or even fixing things around the house.

Their mothers and grandmothers—role models for today’s older women—had not worked outside the home and maintained the Biblical tradition of submissiveness to husbands. They didn’t speak out much, but managed their families quietly by example. These women didn’t even get to vote until 1925 so equality was new to them. The Women’s Liberation movement brought many changes—some just too radical for some of the women to embrace.

Men have had the advantage. Women have been in the background and therefore not noticed. Their needs go unmet largely because they are unspoken. Older women become invisible with age. They live longer than men and become more vulnerable to scams. They are not recognized for any of their talents. They are not acknowledged by society or by their own families. That’ is why I am writing about women. They need recognition, love, honor, and inclusion into the lives of family and of society.

Voices Of Older Women is a call to action. The older women hidden in our society, the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers need to get together and talk, to build trust, and learn from each other like we used to. Our older mothers and grandmothers have so much to teach us – how to grow old gracefully, with dignity, and with a conscience free from guilt. How will you navigate the last third of life’s journey? If you’re not already there and you haven’t thought much about it, it is about to hit you in the face. Be ready!

Older women who read this book will recognize themselves. I hope that in reading the book they will also feel the validation, appreciation, respect, and honor that they deserve. Their adult children—mostly Baby Boomers—will learn much about life through the eyes of their older relatives, how they think and what they need to live with dignity, as well as how important it is to start talking and listening to them long before a crisis. The younger generation—the grandchildren will see that that they are the key to instituting a major attitude change regarding older people. Because they are a generation removed, they don’t have the pressure and in many cases the years and years of baggage that their parents carry with regard to their own parents. These younger adults can keep the lines of communication open and actually strengthen and improve them. They can tear down walls built up over years and years of neglect and misunderstanding. All can benefit from being reminded that ongoing communication and building trust is mandatory to the lives of all.

There have been many books written about aging, caregiving, Alzheimer’s and other debilitating diseases, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. The focus of these books for many years has been on aging as a disease, but fortunately this focus has changed to one of looking at aging as a natural part of life and that there are positive, healthy, aspects to it. There are some excellent manuals on planning to care for aging parents such as The Complete Eldercare Planner by Joy Loverde and How To Care For Aging Parents by Virginia Morris, both of which cover everything one needs to know when faced with caring for elderly relatives.

But these books deal with the “how to” of eldercare. They do not emphasize the conversation, communication, interaction and attention, and appreciation and validation needed well before the elderly person is ill or unable to care for him or herself. Trust and communication must be developed long before the serious decisions regarding long term care are needed.

Reinforcing this trend is the book Walking On Eggshells by Jane Isay which considers points of view about communication from a younger group of persons ranging in age from 25 to 70. It points up the fact that much care and consideration is needed in communicating with each other. You’re Wearing That?, a book by Deborah Tannen, is specifically about communication and the relationship between mothers and daughters.

There is current research on communication between older parents and their adult children that shows conclusively just how little adult children know or can predict regarding what their elderly parents want and desire in later life.

Another new area of research focuses on guidance for counselors of adult children of aging parents, indicating the unprecedented demand for needs and services for adult children as they become involved in obligations of parent-child relationships regarding communication, demands, and expectations on both sides.

Voices Of Older Women is all about the view from behind the eyes of our older mothers and grandmothers and showcases women ranging in age from 50 to 95 years old. It’s crystal clear about the needs of these older women and the need for a communication revolution starting right now.

Voices Of Older Women includes stories based on my interviews of 100 women. Chronicled are their best lines, wisdom, successes, dreams, ideas, and comments, along with some major problems that need to be addressed and who can best address them. It also shows – sometimes painfully -- the dire need to communicate with each other. It will include some tools to determine how you communicate with the older generation, and questions to ask your older parent to glean important information get to know them.

In this book be prepared to meet your mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, or adult child or older friend. You can get close to someone you may have not had the time to visit, call or listen to for a while. You will be surprised at what they have to say. In our busy lives, it seems that our own relatives are the last priority the last one to be penciled in for our time. We tend to believe that there will always be time to catch up. We put off the visits and feel guilty but know that we will be forgiven. After all we have important work, immediate family with young busy children, friends, and obligations that take up the most of our time. But sometimes by the time we get around to it, it is too late. A parent has died or become seriously ill and now commands our attention and thought.

This is a book for families—a look at the reality and possible changes you can make for your own future. You can see the loneliness and frustration on the one side while on the other are valuable talents, skills, and ideas. You can see the meaningfulness of your older parents and relatives that you (among others) have ignored and overlooked. You can see the loyalty and love demonstrated by some wanting to spare your feelings, and the assuaging of guilt. And in some you will see desperation and bitterness at not being included. You are missing the fact that they have something to say, you are missing their contribution, their purpose- a whole part of life.

In the interviews the women opened their hearts and souls. They told me their story and if nothing else, I listened and heard it. I heard what they could not or would not say to their own families. True, valuable, two-way communication within families is difficult because of the fear factor. Conversation remains superficial because no one wants to be involved in or reminded of the last stage in life. It’s a reminder of our own mortality and that of our parents. It’s easier to avoid the conversation and only deal in superficial communication, but we owe our elders attention, respect, our time and our ears. As I’ve related some of their stories, I’ve changed the names of the women I interviewed.

This is an unprecedented time in our history. The information age has enabled us to witness everything going on everywhere in the world. We are called upon to help many serious causes, like the melting of the ice caps, global warming, people starving, failing infrastructures, the war, violence, the underprivileged, a historic election and on and on. A call to work on communication between the generations may seem small in comparison, but I believe it is the most important of all. We can only really change our own interactions. We can make a difference with our own families. Let’s start there.

We are all connected to the aging process or that last third of life. We have parents or a spouse, or relative, or we know someone who has, or we are aging ourselves. We have a chance to give them the dignity they deserve. Our humanity depends on us calling on that good part of us to treat our elders with respect and dignity. We need to take the time to get involved and hear them. They are at once our history and a window into our future.

Arloa Walter
Lincoln, California
June 2008

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