When Isabel Tom was growing up in the Ashburton neighborhood of Bethesda, she lived in the same house with two of her grandparents, both immigrants from China. Her grandmother, who spoke little English and lived to 102, would sit in the same chair every day, often knitting or crocheting gifts for her grandchildren. And Isabel, the youngest of three sisters, would sit with her, chatting in Chinese and helping with her projects. “She would need somebody to thread her needle because she couldn’t see anymore,” Tom tells me.
That simple task, threading a needle for an aging grandmother, helped inspire Isabel’s life work. After graduating from Houghton College, a small Christian school in upstate New York, she found her first job at Riderwood, a large retirement community in Silver Spring. As a wellness coordinator, she did personal training and taught classes on fitness and health, and she’s cared for the elderly at local institutions ever since. Now 38, with three small children of her own, she has just published a book, The Value of Wrinkles, which came out in March and distills the lessons she’s gleaned from her personal and professional experience. Part memoir and part meditation, it’s filled with practical advice about cross-generational relationships.
“I want people to understand that when we have an older person in our life, it’s a gift. It’s a gift that they’re here for us to care for them and to value them,” she explains. “The ultimate thing we have to do is remind them that they’re loved. Sometimes we get bogged down thinking about the logistics, when we need to step back and think, does this person know that they are loved?”
“The way our culture sees beauty,” valuing youthful vitality over ancient wisdom, makes it hard to embrace growing old, Tom says. “Maybe we have more white hairs, we have more wrinkles, we’re hunched over a little bit more, but I feel there is such growth that happens inside of us. My grandma, when she passed away, she was one of the most beautiful people I knew, because she had such gratitude for life.”
Tom’s story is typical of many in Montgomery County, where the Asian population is over 15% and growing steadily. The student body at Thomas S. Wootton High School, in the Rockville community where Tom now lives, is almost 40% Asian. Her father came to America for an education, earning an engineering degree from Virginia Tech and working for years at the Environmental Protection Agency before becoming a Christian minister. Her mother worked in family-run restaurants, and relatives still operate the Hollywood East Cafe in Wheaton. As a child, Isabel recalls long Metro rides to see relatives in downtown Washington and says, “If you reach into the Chinatown culture, my family is related to everybody.”
All four of Tom’s grandparents moved to America to be near their children, a common pattern in this county. But often these elderly relatives, who grew up during a time of great scarcity in China, have trouble adjusting to a very different culture. “This is a really wealthy area, but living with my grandpa, it felt like I grew up in wartime,” Isabel laughs. He hoarded sugar, bread and Coca-Cola, and constantly pestered her to take him to the store so he could buy more. “He got really nervous,” she recalls. “He was always afraid there wouldn’t be enough.”
Tom admits that as a teenager she sometimes “felt smothered and stuck” by all the attention she received from her grandparents. She tells the story of walking home from Walter Johnson High School: “I would literally be down the street and the door would open right away. They were right there at the window, waiting for me to come home, because I was like the highlight of their day, so it was not easy. But it also gave me a greater compassion and awareness for what old people go through.”