Profile in Old Age: Family, Friends and Purpose Fend Off Isolation

Profile in Old Age: Family, Friends and Purpose Fend Off Isolation

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Photo: Former Utah First Lady Norma Matheson meets with friends for their monthly book club. (Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

First of two parts. Read Part 2 here..

MIDVALE, Utah — Old age made its move on Betty Newbold while she was busy being a good daughter and wife.

First, she cared for her frail, elderly parents, gone now almost a decade. Then she took care of Gene, the man she married 58 years ago and with whom she raised three children.

It wasn’t until Gene, 87, died of cancer last October that she had time to sit still in one of two comfy chairs by the little table where they always watched TV in their Midvale rambler and consider her

Former Utah First Lady
87 and Serving Others

Former Utah First Lady Norma Matheson aged the way most of us won't: She didn't just think about having money for retirement or taking care of her body, she also realized the importance of building rich social networks. At 87, she is as busy as most people in their 50s.

A fulfilling old age for anyone hinges largely on communities — the one you build along the way and the others you hope reach in to care about you if you’re frail or alone. But for anyone, old age can be lonely or convivial, depressing or exhilarating and is often a mix.

She has grown old far better than most. More than 40 years ago, she started paying attention to research on aging. She became interested while her husband Scott was governor of Utah.

Matheson stands 5-foot-3 with chin-length white hair and a smile that appears easily. She says she’s taken a purposeful approach to growing old in the 26 years since her husband died of cancer. The couple had been married 39 years, but had been friends since they were 16. When he died, their children worried and took extra care to help her fend off loneliness.

Although she’s often busy, Matheson recently pared down her public commitments after years serving on committees and boards, but she has kept her seat on the local zoo board.

Matheson lives alone but three of her four children live nearby, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren are frequent guests. She notes, “I don’t think I ate dinner alone once in the year after Scott died. The kids made sure of that.”

For her, loneliness is not an issue: “I make it a real point if I’m alone to do something either productive or enjoyable.” She reads on her computer, where it’s easy to adjust font size, and listens to the classics, especially by Franz Schubert, as she cleans or reads. Her walks, a mile most days, are a safety net, too. “If my neighbors don’t see me out walking, they worry and wonder where I am.”

Matheson’s friends are the backbone of her community. Among her dearest friends are folks like Shauna O’Neal, retired from directing Salt Lake County’s aging services, and Maureen Henry, with whom she started the Governor’s Commission on Aging. Her daughter Lu, now a grandmother herself, has become one of her closest friends.

That she is old, with less energy than she had before doesn’t bother Matheson. Nor does a shift in her priorities. “You have to anticipate the end of life,” she says. “I’ve been trying to organize things and finish some projects.”

--Lois M. Collins

losses: Newbold, 78, can’t drive at night because she doesn’t see well. Her joints ache from knee, shoulder and back surgeries, artifacts of the sports she loved well into middle age.

When Newbold is by herself she’s apt to while away an hour or two at a time — sometimes several times a day — with the colored pens and coloring books that cover her kitchen table. She sits alone facing a wall bedecked with pictures of people she loves and a sign that says “Forever and Always and No Matter What.”

Betty spent most of her life surrounded by people who needed her, but is now often alone as she confronts the questions facing more than 46 million Americans age 65 and older. They boil down to “What will my old age be like?”

Senior Safety Net Fragile

America is aging fast at a time when church- and community-based safety nets are becoming more fragile, programs for elders are being scaled down or eliminated, volunteers are often overwhelmed, and families are more scattered.

Policy implications for these trends will be immense. According to Pew Research Center, the percentage of people 65 or older will rise dramatically by 2050. Thanks to increases in global life expectancy, those trends will be seen worldwide: For example, one in four people in Europe will be older than 65.

In Utah, says Peter Hebertson, outreach director for Salt Lake County Aging Services, “A lot of older people have a faith-based community that can help. The neighborhood can help. And then a public sector or government sector community can help. Sadly, none of us do a really good job of talking to each other."

Many old people never need public programs like Meals on Wheels. Good thing too, Hebertson says, because programs struggle to meet the needs of elders who are frail, disabled, alone and poor.

Most programs haven’t expanded in years, and some have shrunk. The Trump administration budget proposal includes cuts for programs, too: In Utah, that includes winterizing homes and help with utility bills. Some states may lose meal or transportation funding. Before the proposed cuts, Hebertson said, county programs were swamped with requests.

Many old people must do without, so help from family, church, friends, service groups and even strangers has tremendous impact. Offering a ride can keep an old person from being homebound.
What that means for the young, old and in between is yet to be sorted out, but the graying of the planet, or at least part of it, will require shifts in thinking for families, communities and nations. About 38 percent of older Americans’ incomes comes from government program — entitlements that seem perpetually under threat, raising fears this safety net may fail.

Beyond Family

Betty Newbold aged the way most of us will: It sneaked up on her. She thought about retirement mostly in terms of more leisure time, too busy with her full life — raising kids, playing softball and caring for frail relatives — to consider building a community for her old age.

Newbold is shy. She stands just 5-foot-1, her pewter-colored hair is cropped short, and her eyes are a calm blue of a pool. She’s like that — outwardly calm and quiet in a way that masks how much she worries about others and how chaotic her life has sometimes been. It hides her loneliness, too.

She grew up in Vernal, Utah, an only child who would always shoulder many responsibilities. When she was 18, she moved to Salt Lake City, where she met Gene, then 27, on a blind date. He wooed her for close to three years before they married on May 1, 1958, in the Salt Lake Latter-day Saints’ (Mormon) Temple and started a family.

A car had hit Gene when he was four; he never completely recovered. Still, he worked in steel fabrication for years at Eimco before going to Jordan School District in the mid-1960s as a custodian and handyman, retiring at 65. Betty produced bank statements for First Security Bank in a pre-computer age when they first married. Later, she worked in the libraries at Union Middle School and Hillcrest High. They had three kids in four years — “I kind of grew up with my children,” Newbold says.

Kids’ school activities and church callings and sports kept Betty busy. At least weekly she made the 175-mile drive to Vernal to care for her folks, until their needs were so great she brought them to live with her when she was in her early 60s. Not long after moving her parents in, her dad, by then blind and deaf, went into a nursing home. He died a year later, in 2003. Later, her mom had dementia and needed nursing home care. She died in 2005.

Her Hedge Against Loneliness

Unexpectedly, it was at Sandy Regional Care Center, where her mother lived, that Newbold found her dearest friend. Jolynne Weaver, now 67, was the daughter of her mom’s roommate. Even after Newbold’s mother died, she’d drop off vegetables from Gene’s garden and chat with Weaver in the nursing home. Sometimes, they went to lunch at Denny’s.

As Newbold was nurturing that friendship, her husband was becoming frail. And her middle child, Clark, became seriously ill. He’d suffered for years with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that primarily attacks the spine. In his late 40s, he needed his mom’s care and moved home. He died in 2010 at age 49.

Newbold’s son, Greg, 57, lives in West Jordan with his wife and three kids. Daughter Jalene, 54, of West Valley City, spends time with her mom at least once a week on her day off, often with her husband or son Vinnie, 23, to do odd jobs. She calls Newbold every day. But Newbold’s kids have


Photo: Betty Newbold sits at her kitchen table and colors as she talks about growing old and her feelings of being alone during an interview in February. Click to see the video of her. (Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

their own families, jobs and other responsibilities. And most of the friends she had when she settled here, the neighbors who raised their broods alongside hers, are dead, in nursing homes or living with their own kids somewhere else.

Outside of family and church, Weaver is Newbold’s community — a community of one who’s a hedge against loneliness and despair. Newbold says she’s battled depression most of her life and isn’t sure if it’s gotten more severe or if she just feels it more keenly now that she doesn’t have responsibilities to distract her.

Says Newbold of Weaver, “She’s kept me alive.”

Despite meaningful connections, Betty spends the bulk of her time alone and, she admits, lonely. In a week that has about 112 hours of awake time, she spends 10 or 12 with family and a varied number with Weaver. That leaves a lot of other hours to fill. She says she didn’t really prepare to grow old. “I don’t think I’m doing it very well,” she adds softly.

Most older people probably aren’t. She is certainly better off than the average AARP survey respondent who lacks even a single confidant. She can tell Weaver anything. But recently her friend was hospitalized with her own health challenges. She doesn’t know what she’d do if something happened to Weaver. “I might go lay down beside her,” she says. One gets the feeling she’s not kidding.

Her Community

Newbold, so physically active when she was young that she wore out joints, is now more sedentary. But she never developed a love of reading and she’s given up cross-stitch because of her eyes. So she colors, carefully compiling the collected pictures into scrapbooks.

After family, church is Newbold’s most reliable community tie, its importance visible in the praying-hands figurines and religious pictures on shelves and walls. When she ventures out, it’s often to church, though her ward’s new early start-time sometimes throws her. She’s slow to get moving in the mornings, she says. Besides family, other visitors are typically from her LDS ward, especially her bishop and a couple of women, who stop by sometimes.

That's one way churches check up on older members. A visitor can spot a problem and alert the troops, who in congregations nationwide rally to provide meals or sit with someone after surgery or a loss. Lucky older folks might find willing hands to clean the house or fix the yard. But most church help is crisis help, brief and sporadic.

While churchgoers are often service-oriented, if there are lots of old people in a congregation, it’s hard to reliably shovel walks in the winter or offer meals. For one thing, there are simply fewer helpers: Women used to play a bigger volunteer role, but more work. Longer life expectancy mean more old people. Plus, some faith communities have shrunk.

Changes in Congregations

The Rev. Scott Dalgarno sees a change in how clergy and congregants interact compared to bygone years. Pastor of Wasatch Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City, he says in over 35 years ministering he’s seen congregations where pastoral visits have diminished. That’s partly because many old people prefer to go to the church office instead of hosting the pastor at home. He thinks some might be embarrassed because they’ve fallen behind on housework. Many old people seem reluctant to ask for any help.

Still, those who minister witness struggles. They see victories. They get a sense of what helps and hurts. Dalgarno says that while churches try to help, he believes old people need more. Interactions are crucial, especially in the quest of finding meaning, which can intensify in old age, he says. As lives slow, seniors often question their purpose. They want to contribute. They fear becoming invisible. Newbold’s like that. She worries about being “unneeded and unwanted. Sometimes, it seems there’s nothing more for me to do.”

The Rev. William B. Randolph of The United Methodist Church, based in Nashville, Tennessee, would like to see churches help people prepare to grow old by teaching practical things like retirement finances. Churches should help with grief processing and minister more to older people’s spiritual needs.

“People spend the last quarter of their life on a quest to understand their own purpose and meaning in life and prepare for their death and the death of loved ones,” he says. “A good intergenerational ministry attempts to use the gifts and graces of all ages to contribute to the whole. It’s especially good when you can put older adults with children.”

He describes a church where older men helped teens get their first cars and fix them up. The kids learned skills and pledged not to drink and drive. The older men found a new purpose.

“If we don’t give older adults opportunities to serve, aren’t we robbing them of the opportunity to be happy?” Rev. Randolph asks. “One thing that makes for really good aging is having joy in life.”

Lois M. Collins reported this story for The Deseret News as part of a 2016 Journalists in Aging Fellowship supported by New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.