I am taking classes at the local University to better understand the aging process and how our individual life course impacts each of us differently. This is an ongoing process that continues to unfold since mom passed away nearly three years ago. At the end of April, I will have completed seven courses at the junior and senior level and know that my understanding of the life course has improved.
A recurring theme is that circumstances, events, decisions, etc., made early in life often impact us through our lives and often culminates (good or bad) when we are elderly. One of the theories in social science that helps explain this is called Cumulative Advantage/Disadvantage Theory. I recently wrote a short paper describing how this theory can be used to explain much of moms life course.
It is a personal account of how events in her life that started in childhood led her to make decisions that impacted her throughout life. Some of the stories are told from her point of view and in complex relationships there are always two sides to every story. Mom and I were not close during my teen and young adult years because 1) our personalities were very similar and 2) I was an angry kid because she divorced dad, married Art, and moved us away from home. I was too young and blinded by anger to understand the benefits of these events at the time, but came to appreciate her courage and determination as I matured.
Cumulative Disadvantage Theory is a logical explanation of how individual circumstances, when young, can have a negative effect throughout life. There is a personal element that each individual has throughout the life course that will also impact their direction. In other words, when we become adults we make our own decisions, but they are often influenced by earlier events. That has been true in my life and was true in moms. This is one reason I am so passionate about telling young parents that their choices will have a life-long impact other their children.
My mother was raised on a large farm in South Georgia, with three brothers and a younger sister. Her father drank and often became violent when he was drunk. She often told me how afraid everyone was of her dad and her memories of childhood were filled with ridicule and physical abuse. She left home at a relatively young age to escape her life with her dad and moved to Albany, Georgia to attend vocational school.
She met dad, fell in love, got married, had three children within four years and discovered she married someone who had many of the negative qualities she despised in her dad. As a result, she divorced by dad and became a single mother with no skills and no education. Dad was not violent, but he loved alcohol and women more than being a family man. She worked multiple jobs, got little financial support from dad, and struggled to keep us together. We were fortunate because we lived next door to dads parents and they played a significant role in caring for us as kids.
She was angry at her dad and my dad and under enormous pressure to make ends meet. She was a firm believer in totalitarian rule in the home and resorted to many spankings and the atmosphere in the home resulted in frightened kids. In spite of all the challenges, mom was tenacious and after five years of being a single parent, met her soul mate, who she spent the rest of her life with.
Divorce has long-term impacts on individuals, but a good relationship can result in many advantages. When mom remarried, she had security and peace. The result was that she explored many creative passions and started a company where she made flower arrangements for weddings and other events. She and my step dad became interested in Fenton glass and traveled all over the southeast looking for glass to complete a set. She enjoyed about 30 years of a rich and rewarding marriage before she developed early-onset dementia in her early 60’s and passed away at 74 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy Body disease. Her doctor indicated that long-term stress can have significant impacts on the body and mind and often shows up years later. It is certainly not clear if the early life stressors led to mom’s untimely death, but her childhood, first marriage, and single-mother status resulted in wear and tear on her.
Divorce often results in long-term negative impacts on children and research shows that elderly that are divorced often have less support from adult children when it is needed. Historically, mothers receive far more support than dads because children were mostly raised by their mothers and dads had less contact with children after a divorce.
This is certainly not always the case now that men often have at least partial custody. Kids are still exposed to negative comments, arguing, and fighting that can have serious consequences for the children.
These life decisions are often repeated by following generations. I married someone when I was young and we were not compatible, so it ended in divorce. We had two small children who were caught in constant conflict and now they are grown. The bottom line is that who we marry or cohabitate with has consequences. The significance is intensified when children are involved. The kids are impacted by what they see, hear, and experience from their parents and those their parents expose them to. These also have a cumulative impact.
We all make mistakes in life, but we need to learn to recognize and admit our mistakes and repair those lost relationships. The baby boomers are getting older now and we each need to think about our choices. Is there someone we need to reach out to? Can we mend a relationship? A recent study was conducted among elderly men in prison. The researchers taught the men forgiveness by telling them they needed to forgive themselves, but also others. The results showed improved mental and physical health, improved socialization, and improved attitudes about life and loved ones. I think that is a discussion for another time!