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Not everyone can say they grew up in a nursing home. For Newtown resident Lia Levitt, her unique upbringing happened because of the strong relationship she developed with her late grandmother, Anna Levitt.
During the Newtown Senior Center’s popular Lunch & Learn program on April 18, members gathered to hear Ms Levitt’s inspirational story about the love and lessons she received through getting to know her grandmother over the span of 19 years.
Despite some technical difficulties at the start of the presentation, due to a projector that was unable to showcase the slideshow Ms Levitt had prepared, she spoke from the heart with no notes. She even held up her laptop and walked around the room to show everyone who attended her talk all the personal photos she had collected from special times with her grandmother.
It was not until Ms Levitt was a teenager that she got to really know her grandmother. When her grandfather died, her grandmother made the decision to move from her home in Brooklyn to the nursing home Hancock Hall in Danbury. Due to macular degeneration, she went blind and appreciated the security of knowing a nurse would be just outside her door in case she needed help.
While visiting her grandmother at Hancock Hall, Ms Levitt developed a positive perception of what nursing homes were like.
“It was like summer camp without the dirty lake, for me,” she joked. “I was excited. They do your laundry, they give you snacks, they have activities. It seemed like such a fun place to be…”
She added, “Everyone asked me questions about myself, all the people looked forward to me coming — I felt like a star there, so I wanted to spend all my time at the nursing home.”
While at Hancock Hall, the two had endless fun together. Her grandmother went from having no hobbies throughout her life to becoming a painter, singer, and performer in her 80s and 90s. Her grandmother even campaigned — and won — the Resident Council’s election and spent 12 years as president of the group.
Good times also came with difficult seasons of life, as Ms Levitt was taught the power of perseverance when her grandmother survived a fall that caused her to break her hip, had an emergency gallbladder removal surgery, and fought through pneumonia, all back-to-back.
“It’s pretty impressive to me,” Ms Levitt said. “She taught me a lot about aging, because I saw somebody who was resilient and somebody who demonstrated a tremendous amount of unconditional love.”
The love that Ms Levitt felt from her grandmother was instrumental in allowing her to see her own potential.
“As a person who was not that happy at home, she made me really into the person that I am,” she said. “Whenever someone tells me a compliment I say, ‘I give all the credit to my grandmother.’”
During her talk, Ms Levitt asked the seniors in the audience who has grandchildren, to which most raised their hands. She stressed how important it is that they connect with their grandchildren, especially the ones who appear distant, because those are the ones most in need of love and attention.
“I wanted to give my grandmother everything, because the thing she gave me was confidence,” Ms Levitt said.
She made it her mission to help her grandmother experience all the things in life she missed out on in her early years. When her grandmother told her that she had been too poor to go to college, Ms Levitt brought her grandmother to her Women In Communications class in college. When her grandmother said she had never been in a limousine, Ms Levitt rented one that picked them up at the nursing home and took them out for dinner and ice cream.
Between those memorable moments of fun and excitement, were the day-to-day visits that Ms Levitt spent caring for her grandmother. She even got a job near the nursing home just so she could see her grandmother at lunchtime and feed her pureed meals.
Through all their time together, she said, “I couldn’t see age in her… I never treated her like she was old or dying.”
In 2012, though, Ms Levitt received a call from her father saying that the doctor expected her grandmother only had 24 hours to live.
“She always said to live exactly the life you want until you are tired, and then you can die,” Ms Levitt said. When she went to the nursing home that day, her grandmother told her that she was too tired to go on.
Ms Levitt told the seniors in the audience that she knows death is a taboo topic, but understands mortality is something on everyone’s mind, no matter what age.
“What I found about watching my grandmother’s death was that it was not scary. I feel like that is important to share, because a lot of times there is so much fear associated with death…” she said. “When my grandmother passed, she did not struggle at all. She really had a peaceful transition.
“My name was the last thing that she said, and my breath was the last thing that she felt,” she said. Her grandmother was 99 years old when she died.
As upset as she was losing her grandmother, she was proud to have been with her and she felt being there in her grandmother’s last moments was a beautiful experience.
“I think it’s important, even if it can get uncomfortable for people, to be there for them in the end when it really matters,” she said.
Ms Levitt admitted that despite knowing her grandmother lived a long life, it was incredibly difficult to lose her best friend. Her grief brought her to book a trip alone to Cape Town, South Africa, for 12 days — a decision she did not tell anyone about except her travel agent.
The life-changing journey inspired her to do more solo travels, and she has since been to every continent in the world, sans Antarctica. Through her adventures, she has met people from all around the world and been immersed in cultures she never thought she would ever get to experience.
In March, she finished her book, Ain’t She Sweet: A Coming of (Old) Age Story, chronicling her strong bond with her grandmother.
Lia Levitt is an inspirational speaker, advocate, and writer. To learn more about her upcoming book, visit aintshesweet.net.