The Death of Beatrice: Reflections on Old Age in America

The Death of Beatrice: Reflections on Old Age in America

I don’t know if my mother intended to die on Valentine’s Day. But she did. At nearly ninety-six and a half, Beatrice Katz had reached one of her goals, outliving her oldest sister by a few months. Her hospice nurse, who knew her well, said that she would choose the time to give up her long struggle with pain and debility, and I believed the nurse. My mother had an iron will and had fooled us often enough before, sinking almost to the point of extinction and then bouncing back. After the last episode, she had bounced so far that she was kicked out of hospice until her trajectory reversed and a serious decline set in. So why did my mother choose Valentine’s Day? I think it was her last way of showing her love. Valentine’s Day had been a big deal when I was a child, with heart-shaped cookies and red food dye in almost everything. She would have loved the symbolism. At least, that’s what I want to believe.

Since my dad died in December 1999, responsibility for looking out for my mother had fallen to me, their only child. Because she lived in Massachusetts and I in Philadelphia, her care posed logistical problems compounded by the contradiction between her fierce desire for independence and her chronic illnesses and legal blindness. As it happened, in those years my colleague Mark Stern and I were at work on a book intended to situate the 2000 census in the context of twentieth-century social and economic trends. One of the themes that interested us most was the history of the life course. The stages in human lives, we believed, were products of culture and history as much as biology. In the book, we showed this by focusing on the history of the transitions to adulthood and old age. So my life experience and research and writing intertwined. As I tried to help my mother through difficult years, finding a new place to live, navigating the intricacies of health insurance, learning a lot about caregivers, I could not help but reflect on the ways her unfolding story encapsulated the transformation of old age in America.

Her parents had emigrated from Lithuania and Poland in the early twentieth century. She grew up in the largely Jewish section of Roxbury, Massachusetts. When she was young, her father abandoned his home and six children, setting up his tiny tailoring and cleaning shop across the harbor in Chelsea and living in a rented room. Her mother, who scraped by with tiny public benefits and help from children, lived independently until almost the end of her life, caring for her mentally ill adult son. When my mother’s father became too ill to work, he came to live in our house, where he died on the week of my high school graduation, thrilled to have lived long enough to know that I was headed for Harvard in the fall. The comfort of our modest but picture-perfect house in suburban Marblehead, my dad’s job as a leather chemist, my acceptance by a great university: all these were an astonishing distance from Poland or th...


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