Friday, October 23, 2015

Twilight Among Us

"Slit skirts, Jeanie never wears those slit skirts
I don't ever wear no ripped shirts
Can't pretend that growing older never hurts."

~Peter Townsend

The most wistful part of working at a retirement community is not having known the residents in their primes. By the time people move into Drake Terrace in their 70s, 80s, or 90s, they are often beset with a physical malady or cognitive impairment. We missed them during the best years of their lives.

One resident, a former government administrator, once looked straight at me and said, "Don't ever get old. It's terrible."

He and his wife lived with us until they both needed more care than we could provide. He'd had repeated falls and his wife was suffering from dementia. He could no longer care for himself, let alone his wife.

But as their physical and mental deterioration increased, and there were falls and bruised faces and stroke-like seizures, it was hard to remember they'd once been so young and vibrant. They'd met inside the library at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Maybe she walked by him in the stacks, his head turning as her fragrance wafted by. Maybe she caught sight of him, gazing at his piercing blue eyes, and there was recognition. They'd seen each other in their hometown before WWII. They courted, got married, raised a family, were successful in love and life.

Their stories are ones I see playing out everyday: once healthy individuals whose bodies or minds (or both) are losing the battle of old age. I don't mean to make it out to be all gloom and doom. One man just moved out of his San Francisco home, weeks after his wife died, because he wanted to live in a retirement community. He is almost completely independent. He is also 99.

Another resident, a former minor league baseball player, moved out his North Beach apartment in San Francisco earlier this year where he'd been getting some help from a caregiver. His handshake is still firm and he carries on conversations about current events and sports as if he is much, much younger. He turned 101 last month.

But many residents are like the couple from Oregon such as Bill and Flora. When I first met Bill (not his real name), he introduced himself and said he was "SOB. Sweet Old Bill." Then a grin broke out across his face and he chuckled like a man at peace with himself. He and his wife, Flora (not her real name), even had an arrangement with their nurse and caregivers to give them time alone for a special nap on Saturday afternoons. Bill and Flora, who met just after WWII when Bill was stationed in Europe, are both in their late 80s.

I took Bill today to Macy's to get his watch repaired. Flora insisted on going with us. Both are not allowed to leave the community unassisted. Flora has a diagnosis of dementia. Bill has recently been sending money to a scam lottery back east. His son now controls Bill and Flora's finances.

As we walked into Macy's and glanced around for an elevator, I wondered if the people who designed these stores ever had older relatives. Macy's aisles, awash in every color of the rainbow, stretched across racks of shirts, pants, Christmas pajamas, stonewashed jeans, shoes, slippers, blouses, nightgowns, jewelry, and perfume, are a maze-like nightmare, a sensory overload of sight, sound, and smell.

Even I couldn't figure out where to go, so how would've Bill and Flora navigated the store without help? A frumpy and kind employee guided us to the elevator. We rode it to the second floor and the watch repair counter, past the bathrooms and near the executive offices. Flora plowed along near me, her walker gliding along the floor, while Bill shuffled at a molasses-like pace. Flora and I reached the repair counter by ourselves.

"Where is he?" she asked, a hint of exasperation in her voice.

I looked out at the racks and racks and racks and saw Bill, his head swaying from side to side, searching for someone.

"Bill," I shouted, "over here!" I repeated myself a few times. My voice is loud enough to hear several towns over. But Bill could not match my voice to my location. I started walking closer to him, but another patron intercepted him and turned him towards me. I wondered if I hadn't been there would he have gotten really lost. Flora's dementia would have been of no help in locating him.

I felt sad for Bill and Flora, married for more than 60 years and proud parents to a caring son, a son who now must exercise control over their money and mail in order to protect them, because they are declining--as we all do. Just as my Oregon couple once did before they needed skilled nursing and memory care.

I also worried that watching Bill and Flora and all the residents who struggle with physical and mental decrepitude was a mirror into my future. And who will see me and wonder who and what I was like during the best years of my life.

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