There is a theme that runs deep through Peggy Munro’s life that can best be described as resilience. At first glance, it is easy to imagine that this bright-eyed, engaging woman has only known good fortune and happiness throughout her life.
In fact, Peggy’s story is much more complex, and much more remarkable. Although she recounts it with her ever-present smile, she has had enormous challenges to manage. After 25 years of marriage, raising seven children, and enduring the unimaginable pain of losing a son to an automobile accident, Peggy’s marriage ended. She was in her mid-40s, and she needed to start all over again.
“Suddenly I was on my own. I was such an innocent.”
With no source of income and her youngest daughter still at home, Peggy needed to pick herself up quickly. And so she did, taking it one step at a time.
First, she needed credentials to enter the workforce. Because she had only completed two years at Vassar College after graduating high school, Peggy needed to re-start her education. She enrolled in an undergraduate degree program at Northeastern designed for women her age who were returning to school after having children.
Next, Peggy needed employment. Through personal contacts, she interviewed for the executive secretary position at the Massachusetts Council for Home Care Aide Services. The odds were not in her favor. One of the three women on the search committee was leery about selecting a recent divorcee. She knew from personal experience that the ordeal could be potentially devastating, and she was concerned about Peggy’s ability to focus on the job. Peggy assured the interviewers – and herself – that she was fully able to meet the performance expectations. She excelled at her job, and several years later, she was asked to become the organization’s first executive director. She headed the organization for the next 27 years.
Peggy enjoyed a career that was rich with priceless benefits. Her work was challenging and satisfying. She built strong, mutually respectful relationships with professionals throughout the state. She had the joy of considering many of these colleagues as her closest friends.
At age 72, in 2002, it all stopped. Peggy retired.
“I was miserable when my job ended. I had been working far more than 40 hours a week for nearly three decades. I went from that level of involvement to nothing.”
The loss of the structure in her life was compounded by the loss of regular contact with her extensive network of colleagues. She had few local connections to fill this void. For so many years, Peggy’s focus had been the community related to work rather than the one that encompassed her neighborhood.
Once again, Peggy took it step by step. In time, she established new, satisfying routines. She now had the opportunity to spend more time with her children, five of whom live locally. She sat on several boards, including the Citizens’ Advisory to the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, as a way to maintain a connection to her professional interests. She plunged into causes and organizations that she deemed meaningful.
And then, just 18 months ago when she turned 85, Peggy faced another substantial hurdle.
“All of the sudden, I started to feel old.
It seemed to happen overnight. Suddenly, I was tired all the time. I had no energy. I had ongoing pain in my feet and hips. Most disturbing was my loss of balance. I felt like I was falling off a cliff.”
She made an appointment with her primary physician.
“I was panicked. I wanted to have all kinds of medical tests. If the results showed that this was normal aging, then I would learn to cope. Otherwise, I needed to know how I could feel well again.”
The tests showed that there were things she could work on, like improving her ability to sleep. Other issues, she’d just have to chalk up to the aging process.
“It really helps that I have a doctor who is responsive. She takes my concerns seriously.”
In the ensuing months, Peggy has had to contend with changes that are dramatically impacting her sense of self and her ability to continue her active life.
“For the first time in my life, I find myself wanting to look younger.
Just getting out of the car can be so embarrassing. I am so wobbly when I walk. I feel lucky to have enough people around me whose arms I can grab without falling on my face.
This can be a humiliating time. I feel like everyone is looking at me, but I am learning to not think about that.”
These are jarring shifts for a woman has always been comfortable in her own skin.
Like other trying times in her life, Peggy is taking steps to come to terms with what she now fears is her new normal. She continues to stay engaged, keeping her mind and body fit. She regularly delivers fresh produce to a local shelter. She is active on a committee at church that donates funds to organizations that are engaged in worthy projects. She does exercises to improve her balance.
Peggy takes comfort in knowing that her children are very committed to her well-being. Each one offers Peggy assistance with some part of her life. Her son Bobby, for instance, stops by regularly to make sure that her house is in working order while daughter Emily accompanies her to every medical appointment.
Still, it is an uphill battle.
“My general mindset right now is that old age is not a good thing.”
Yet, almost as soon as she says this, Peggy’s resilience re-surfaces.
“You might talk to me next year to see where I’m at … once I’ve passed through this transitional phase.”
Peggy and I ended our conversation by discussing the significance of her use of the word “transition” to describe her current situation. We spoke about the likelihood that she will move through this phase and arrive at a more comfortable, accepting place.
And yes, I would love to take Peggy up on her offer to reconnect in 2017 and discover the steps she has taken to move ahead!