Interview with Mrs. N --:

study in resilience and defiance of the stereotypes attached to old age

For the purposes of this assignment, my interview subject was one Mrs. N --, a 85-year-old friend of my mother's who used to run the small, corner grocery store in my town when I was growing up. My mother's family still has some contact with Mrs. N --, and when I learned, somewhat to my surprise that she was still living in the area, the area where she had grown up, she seemed like an ideal subject to examine the transition into the final stage of life. She was not a family member, but she was friendly enough with my family that she would not be offended by any questions posed to her over the course of a probing interview. I did have something of an acquaintance with her, since I used to buy ice cream and candy from her, or pick up some cold cuts or bread from her store during the summer when I rode my bike, but it was not to the point that it would interfere with my objectivity.

Discussing the store proved to be a good way of developing a rapport during the interview between myself and my subject. I asked how long it had been since she had abandoned the store, and she said she had done so after her husband died. The two of them had moved into the area from the Italian-American community in Brooklyn, where both of them had grown up. They came looking for a nicer, suburban location to raise their children. The area, she explained to me, was very rural, long before I was born, and she could still remember many of the busy streets when they were lined with trees, and even some of the roads I took for granted were fields and pavement. During the interview at several occasions, she made comments about the noise outside and how much things had changed. This type of positive nostalgia is often typical of older adults, who may wish to remember their formative years in the past as better than the present.

Both Mrs. N -- and Mr. N -- spent most of their lives running the store they had bought and raising their children. Mrs. N -- worked the cash register and her husband, who had been trained as a butcher, ran the deli and meats section in the back. I remember the store had always been known as a nice place to get cheeses and meats, particularly for Italian-Americans in the area. Mrs. N -- expressed regrets that so many things had changed recently, that the stores had become so faceless and generic. She also expressed fond memories for her husband, but she did not seem lonely, which was one of my questions.

She was still very close to her two daughters and their families, and visited them frequently, and one of her friends was departing when I arrived. Although she had sold the store after her husband's death, she said the decision was partly financial, as they had saved enough for retirement, not because she felt she could not run the store without him. Mrs. N -- expressed pride in making enough money from the store to establish a business, buy property she could rent, and to put her two daughters through college. She claimed personal pride in this achievement, and did not see this as her husband's accomplishment, but a mutual one, as they had both worked equally hard in the store.

This also undercut the common conception that women of previous generations uniformly lacked vocational and esteem-building resources. Another surprising finding was the high level of cognitive function Mrs. N -- showed. Mrs. N -- said that working with the public had kept her 'sharp' mentally and physically. Mrs. N -- never went to college, only finished high school, as did her husband, which she said was fairly typical of her community and era, and she did not have any regrets that she did not go to college although she was proud of both daughters' educational and vocational achievements.

Physically, Mrs. N -- was neither over nor underweight, which bodes well, since being underweight can be a sign of physical neglect in the elderly, while being overweight can cause health problems such as insulin-resistant diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. She said she did occasionally bring food to her children, the Italian foods they…