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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Former Utah First Lady Norma Matheson meets with a group of friends at the home of Carol McFarland for their monthly book club on Thursday, April 20, 2017.

MIDVALE — 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.

Betty Newbold sits at her kitchen table as she talks about growing old and her feelings of being alone on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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 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 she’s 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?”

America is aging fast at a time when church- and community-based safety nets are becoming more fragile, programs for the elderly 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.

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 income for older Americans comes from government subsidies — entitlements that seem perpetually under threat, raising fears this safety net may fail.

This is the story of two women who grew old in very different ways. 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.

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.

Former Utah First Lady Norma Matheson hugs Diane Hale as she attends a monthly book club as the home of Carol McFarland on Thursday, April 20, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A fulfilling old age 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.

It’s not all happenstance. Old age can be lonely or convivial, depressing or exhilarating and is often a mix. One cannot entirely control parts that are genetically encoded, like a cranky memory or achy hips, but research says people who forge bonds with others and who foster interests and connections while they’re younger will fare the best as they grow old.

Wanted: human touch

Norma Matheson 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.

The research shows that only 12 percent of old people in the United States will ever live in nursing homes or continuing care, so aging occurs largely behind closed doors in neighborhoods that themselves grow old in waves.

Independence, identity and intimacy matter most as years accumulate, says Rev. William B. Randolph, national director of both the Office of Aging and Older Adult Ministries for The United Methodist Church, his office in Nashville. Old people want to do as much as they can on their own, but may become dependent on family, on doctors, on someone to drive them. As they leave behind middle age and move into a potentially difficult phase of life, they must figure out who they will become. Forming or maintaining relationships is crucial.

A quarter-century ago, AARP asked senior citizens about close friendships. Most said they had three friends in whom they would confide. When AARP asked in 2010, for most seniors the number had plunged to zero confidants.

That’s not good news. While many people report decent health and claim to have even greater life satisfaction well into their 80s and 90s than when they were younger, others are lonely and depressed. Research worldwide says social connections greatly influence quality of life. Even those in failing health can enjoy old age if relationships are good, especially if they're plentiful.

Such findings hold worldwide. A study in New Delhi, India, found many factors bolster a satisfying old age: religious belief, relationships, perceived health, feeling capable, having adequate resources, social skills and interactions.

READ MORE:You could be exactly what an old person needs

In England, a 2012 University of Brighton “Wellbeing in Old Age” report found links between social contacts and ability and/or desire to go out. It said "bereavement and gradual loss of friends and family” that become common with age create isolation. That’s why senior citizens who cannot easily go out need others to come in. Old people need personal relationships. The report warns being uprooted poses a major challenge for old people.

A study from the University of Toronto found older people crave being asked for advice; it adds zest and purpose. Yet as they long for it, they may have fewer opportunities.

Research is clear on something else, too. Intergenerational interactions aren’t just good for the old. For instance, a BYU study shows mutual benefit when kids and grandparents are close. Youngsters are kinder and their grandparents stay more active.

Helping elders helps others.

Looking toward “old”

Matheson, now 87, is 5-foot-3 with chin-length white hair and a smile that appears easily. Even in jeans — she’s been sorting through drawers and closets, gathering items to donate to charity — she looks elegant. She says she’s taken a purposeful approach to growing old in the 26 years since her husband died of cancer. She's reaping rewards, and what she’s done could be a primer for others to follow while they’re young.

Former Utah First Lady Norma Matheson ,right, greets friends Lynda Fletcher and Carol McFarland, center, as she meets with a group of friends for their monthly book club on Thursday, April 20, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Matheson is often busy. She has deliberately cultivated friends of various ages with whom she goes to dinner and events, and she’s active in two book clubs. She 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’s home in a quiet Salt Lake neighborhood is aging gracefully, too, well-suited to any future challenges. It has wide halls and she can live entirely on one floor if stairs to the basement become difficult. She and Scott outfitted it with grab bars years ago and enlarged the shower. It is well lit with light-wood floors that aren’t slippery and she keeps paths clear. In this uncluttered environment, visitors see an eclectic mix of things she treasures, from a much-loved cookie jar collection (when she was first lady, senior center ceramics classes gave her many of them) to quilts and figurines.

She lives alone but is often surrounded by people she loves. Three of Matheson's four children live nearby, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren are frequent guests. She counts that physical and emotional proximity to family among her blessings. “I don’t think I ate dinner alone once in the year after Scott died. The kids made sure of that.”

The Mathesons were married 39 years, but had been friends since they were 16. “We sort of raised each other,” she says. “We spent a lot of time together even before we were married.” When he died, their children worried and took extra care to help her fend off loneliness.

Former Utah First Lady Norma Matheson hugs Linda Kruse as she attends a monthly book club at the home of Carol McFarland on Thursday, April 20, 2017.| Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

As important as family ties are, they are not the only community an old person needs, 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, he says, because programs struggle to meet the needs of the elderly 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. Matheson stopped driving at night or in bad weather, but has no lack of friends to take her out in the evenings, should she want to go. Many beloved events, like theater, occur at night and poor vision can keep old people away.

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.”

“I think you have to make a decision and effort with how you’re going to be alone,” says Matheson.

Beyond family

Younger people tend to picture old age as something uniform. It’s not. People become more diverse as they grow old, not less, says Hebertson. “Teens are much more similar as a group than octogenarians.”

Those considered old in America range from what Tom Brokaw dubbed “the Greatest Generation” — the humble, religious, responsible World War II cohort — to the me-generation baby boomers, along with everyone in-between. It's a diverse crowd.

So, too, is old age different within each person — in health, experiences, desires, talents, resources and needs. Genetics, environment and circumstance all leave marks on aging bodies and minds, shaping their communities. Old people have kids or they don’t. The kids come around or they don’t. People are religious or they're not. They may have had careers, or not. They may be single, married, divorced or widowed, wealthy or poor, capable or clingy, sociable or shy.

Newbold is shy. She stands just 5-foot-1, her pewter-colored hair cropped short, her eyes the blue of a calm pool. She’s like that, too — 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.

READ MORE:Most elderly want to stay in their homes, but is that what's best?

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.

They married May 1, 1958, in the Salt Lake LDS Temple and started a family. A car had hit him when he was 4; 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. She 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.

Betty Newbold sits at her kitchen table and colors as she talks about growing old and her feelings of being alone on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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 her busy. She loved softball best, both as a player and later a referee for church sports leagues. 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.

Unexpectedly, it was at Sandy Regional Care Center, where her mother lived, that Newbold found her dearest friend. Only-child Betty longed her whole life for a sister and she found one: Jolynne Weaver, now 67, was the daughter of her mom’s roommate. At first, they visited politely but found they had a lot in common, including a shared religion and longtime caregiver roles. Weaver cared for her husband until he died, too.

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. She keeps a picture of Clark on a little wood stand along with the program from her husband’s funeral and dried roses from their caskets.

Betty Newbold sits at her kitchen table and colors as she talks about growing old and her feelings of being alone on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

This time, though, Newbold had a pal to help her through it, although she and Weaver are quite different. Weaver is a gregarious counterpoint to Newbold’s shyness. She’s still busy with a church calling and family and is an in-demand seamstress. Her family is large and boisterous and loves to get together. Sometimes, she takes Newbold along.

Newbold’s own family is smaller: Her 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 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.

A couple of times a month, Newbold stays over at Weaver’s house. Newbold jokes that they mostly sit, but at least she's doing it somewhere else. They also visit on the phone, sometimes for minutes and sometimes for hours. If one’s going to the store, she’s apt to invite the other. Mostly, they shop for essentials, because money’s always tight. They’ve taken a few overnight trips — they’re planning one this summer to Tuacahn to see a play.

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.

“I have no one else,” says Newbold of Weaver. “She’s kept me alive.”

Betty Newbold talks about growing old and her feelings of being alone on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

That reaction takes nothing from the love she has for her family. Urban geographer Stephen M. Golant, a University of Florida geography professor who wrote “Aging in the Right Place,” says humans their whole lives need friends their own age and it would be odd to expect that to change because one grows old.

Despite meaningful connections, Betty Newbold 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 old people probably aren’t. She is certainly better off than the average AARP survey respondent, who lacks 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, and one gets the feeling she’s not kidding.

Their communities

Matheson and Newbold experience being alone differently.

Although she’s well-connected to many communities, Matheson also lives alone. “I eat dinner and breakfast and lunch alone a lot,” she says. “As busy as I am and as involved as I am, there are days I don’t have physical contact with a human.”

Still, she says 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. Like Newbold, she loves music, especially classical pieces by Franz Schubert, which often play in the background as she cleans or reads. She walks a mile most days. Her walks are a safety net, too. “If my neighbors don’t see me out walking, they worry and wonder where I am.”

Former Utah First Lady Norma Matheson meets with a group of friends at the home of Carol McFarland for their monthly book club on Thursday, April 20, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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.

Newbold recently had what was for her a very sociable day. Aside from family and Weaver, visitors are rare, but a fellow from her church ward dropped off a box of chocolates and grabbed a handful of the hard candies she keeps in one of the dozen candy bowls that line the table by her front door.

Outside of their families, Matheson and Newbold have nurtured very different communities. Matheson’s friends are the backbone of hers. There’s Jeannine, a close confidant since college who lives in California. “I was upset when she moved,” Matheson laughs. “We talk politics and reinforce each other’s views.” Many of her dearest friends are folks she met working on senior issues, like Shauna O’Neal, retired from directing Salt Lake County’s aging services, or Maureen Henry, with whom she started the Governor’s Commission on Aging. She goes to lunch often, sometimes with groups, sometimes with a pal. Her daughter Lu, now a grandmother herself, has become one of her closest friends. They love to shop for gifts for the grands and great-grands.

Betty Newbold talks about growing old and her feelings of being alone on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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. Other visitors are typically from her LDS ward: Her bishop is her home teacher. The 64-year-old software compliance engineer and his wife, who works in real estate development, come by every month. She loves the visits, but they only last about a half hour and she wishes they were longer. A couple of women in the ward stop by sometimes, too.

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.

When people can’t take care of themselves and their families have done what they can, Mormon ward members, who are also neighbors, generally try to offer some support, says Newbold's former LDS Stake president, Richard Allred. But they’re not geared to take a family’s place, with all the daily tasks an older person might need done.

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

Newbold needs companionship more than she needs actual help. Her family handles the odd jobs.

Betty Newbold talks about growing old and her feelings of being alone on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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 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.

“Happiness in the older years has a lot to do with whether people have younger friends or families with grandchildren that engage with them and are around a lot. Lots of people lose their friends to death and don’t replace them,” Rev. Dalgarno says. 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.”

Rev. Randolph 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. They should use the individual gifts of those who are old to enrich the congregation.

“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.

Former Utah First Lady Norma Matheson sits and talks Carol Dixon, left, and Bonnie Farr, right, as they meet with a group of friends for their monthly book club at the home of Carol McFarland on Thursday, April 20, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“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.”

Matheson hopes old people will do their part, too. Aging can be shaped more than people realize. “You can’t always control what happens to you. You can control what you do with it. I live by that.”

Editor's note: Lois M. Collins reported this story as part of a 2016 Journalists in Aging Fellowship supported by New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco