How Will You Live in Old Age?

Some people seem to take years to die. In my family members crash and burn. One moment my father was cooking burgers on the grill for my son, the next he was dying of a heart attack. Aside from dying while sleeping, this is the best way to go, though it’s a shock to those left behind.

In novels, the excruciatingly slow death is my favorite. I’ll mention Prince Andrei in WAR AND PEACE as my personal favorite, gut-wrenching death. I cried over him (as some of you may know) for weeks. Yes, weeks. I hardly cried at all over my father because my morbid imagination had prepared me for his passing since worrying about it all through childhood. It was no secret that we loved each other immensely so perhaps that gave me peace. I also decided that I wanted to appear stoic yet stylish like Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s assassination. Funny what your brain and heart do to get you through tragedy.

In my first novel I kill off a couple of characters. One dies in true Victorian fashion, lingering until the right words are said. Another dies suddenly of a heart attack. People exit. It’s part of the human story. Until recently many people lived with disfigurement and death as kissing cousins.

On Sunday my husband made a rare request.

He’s at a crossroads in his career. He’s searching for meaning. His proud and independent-minded parents are struggling to survive a few states away. One with painful blood cancer and the other with multiple issues only made worse by loneliness and depression after years caring for her suffering husband.

My husband wanted to visit the local nursing home nestled in the mountains of Washington County. He asked me to come. My first thought was to tell him talking to sick, old people wasn’t my thing and that I’d planned a day of reading by the fire. But, as I’ve said, my husband rarely makes requests. My daughter joked that we’d be the Will and Kate of Upstate New York. I practiced my royal wave in my Sunday best with a laugh.

Our pastor occasionally visits the home on Sundays. He had invited my husband to come by since we live five minutes from the place.

“It will only take half an hour,” my husband said to reassure us both as we walked down a long hallway with large windows and geraniums blooming on the sills.

One old soul napped in a wheelchair beside the main desk. She wore a faded pink sweatshirt and her hair went in every direction. The place smelled of housecleaning fluids and medicinal things only old people and doctors know about. We followed the booming voice of our pastor. We arrived a few minutes late for the gathering and tip-toed to a couple of chairs behind about twenty people in wheelchairs. Our pastor joked with them, shook hands and led them in singing old Christian hymns. And then he left.

One of the old men, in a hurry to get back to his room, smashed his wheelchair into a younger man who appeared to have had a brain injury. My husband jumped to his feet, took charge of the situation and wheeled the man where he wanted to go. I smiled as I watched my husband in his element (I’m the sort who tends to witness things happening with a detached inability to step in).

Just as my husband returned, and I zipped my coat to go, another man with a fake leg wheeled over to us.

“I need to talk to you. I said to myself if someone doesn’t talk to these two they may never want to come back.”

All thoughts of reading by the fire slipped away. In an instant this bunch of wheelchairs became people. I cast a sheepish look my husband’s way, but he was already engaged in talk about the old man’s life as a dairy farmer. Despite the fact that he was only just recovering from an amputation, Walter wanted us to know that he was still a farmer and that he was planning to walk again soon. I hate awkward silences because I feel the need to fill them which exhausts me. I needn’t have worried. Walter and my usually quiet husband talked tractors and milk prices. I wanted to take Walter home after only a few minutes.

All the while a lady stared at us as if waiting in line to speak with royalty. It was a little unnerving and humbling. After Walter went to get his snack of Lorna Doone Cookies and juice, Nancy waited for us to make the first move. We shook hands.

“I just said to your pastor that if his church wanted to do good he needed to remember us.”

I considered our pastor’s busy schedule. I considered that when writing one of my novels I got rid of a character by sending her to a home for the aged. I couldn’t keep her because she had too much wisdom and spunk and the other characters needed to remain stupid and inexperienced for the story to move forward.

Someone took Nancy to the beauty parlor or had someone come in to give her highlights. Grey hairs mixed with the blond strands but her face appeared young—maybe 50-ish. Her hands shook and her back curved unnaturally.

“You keep animals?” she asked. “My father was a farmer. He got me on a horse when I was three. Once my horse spooked and dove into the Mohawk River with me on back.”

“Were you scared?”

“No,” she said wistfully. “I was never scared when my father was around.” Nancy sensed we were uncomfortable with what seemed a sad remark. “I still intend to ride again someday.”

The characters in my novels lead busy lives. They mention the old folks’ home once in a while but they never go to see how their loved one is doing. My father’s last words to my mother were: “I always loved you best. Tell the kids I loved them all the same.”

I wonder how I’ll feel if I end up in a nursing home. Will I welcome the rest and solitude? Will I fight for coffee or tea with my crappy cookies? My daughter says she’ll keep me in her home and we’ll die together like Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher (my daughter has a flair for the dramatic).

On the drive home my husband asked if I’d like to come with him again next weekend. How could I say no?

LINK: SENIOR LIVING 1800-1900

MORBID DEATH CUSTOMS FROM THE VICTORIAN ERA

THE UNSETTLING ART OF DEATH PHOTOGRAPHY

 

10 Comments Add yours

  1. delphini510 says:

    Thank you Adrienne for this sensitive and honest story from your life.
    I felt so glad you went to this care home to visit. Not only did you get over your feeling of it being just off the radar. You also found how many interesting charachters there were under a surface less perfect.

    It could even give you strong background for a novel with a difference. All these people have lived full life’s…many very interesting.
    Bless both your husband and you. Just keep going.

    Like

    1. It’s very easy for me to become cold and callous. I’m glad my husband dragged me along. 🙂 I stopped telling myself I was “basically a good person” a few decades ago. LOL.

      Of course sometimes we just don’t want to be reminded of suffering, but the best cure for suffering is engagement not avoidance. Still, I tend to avoid. 🙂

      Like

  2. carlamcgill says:

    I can identify with so many of your comments here, Adrienne! I tend to avoid also, and yet the love I have for so many of my elderly relatives has driven me to visit them in homes or at their home, depending, and it is, as you point out, painful and rewarding. Your dad’s situation sounds somewhat desireable by comparison!

    Like

    1. It’s wonderful that you take the time to show your love in that way. I guess just being there for someone is more important than worrying about what to say. I get locked in my head at times–my need to be the “perfect” me when no one else really cares. They were just happy we showed up!

      Aging and perfectionism seem to be at odds with each other. LOL.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautifully written, honest, reflections.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Derrick. It’s like a lot of things in life. I avoid and avoid but discover that when I reach out to others I benefit maybe more than they do. It’s funny how ingrained selfishness is 😉

      Once I got past considering my own needs and worrying about my own future, I was able to see and enjoy the people who were just souls a few years ahead on the journey. It was kind of awe-inspiring to witness the will to live and live well even in pain and suffering.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Really wonderful, reflective post. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. You are very kind. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nine years ago we made the difficult decision to place my mom in a residence for those suffering from memory illnesses. I’d known for several years that she had Alzheimer’s disease (I think you know this from my blog) but when my dad died, it soon became apparent that we couldn’t keep her safe in her own home. Moving her was so painful. I looked at 14 places, many of which left me furious and others that left me feeling hopeless. Fortunately, we were able to place her at a residence that provides outstanding care, though the price is enormous.

    I didn’t think my mom would live beyond the first year – her grief and confusion were so great. She didn’t know she had Alzheimer’s and she kept asking when my dad was coming back. Yet she began to participate in the many activities offered. She thrived, eventually making friends with other residents. Even today, now mostly in a wheel chair with her executive faculties much diminished, she still tells people how beautiful they are, how well she’s treated at this place, how happy she is. This woman who has no memory of her life ten years ago when her husband was alive, who no longer remembers her beloved grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who has no ability to plan anything, is still grateful and gracious.

    My earliest memories of an old folks home was the Odd Fellows Home located just behind my elementary school in Trenton, New Jersey. It terrified me though I never actually visited. I didn’t understand at the time that Odd Fellows was a fraternal organization, (I mean, Odd Fellows – what could that name mean but some kind of freakiness?) and that the home was a place where elderly members could live their final years. So the big house at the far end of the vacant lot was my spooky house, and I never crossed the field to see it.

    I think most people have a fear of what they don’t understand and a fear of aging. We don’t treat aging people well, especially if it comes with physical and mental debilitation. We turn away in fright and embarrassment, worrying that we may one day be this old and feeble. But when I visit my mom, I am privileged to see glimpses of the vigorous, intelligent, independent, industrious people the residents used to be. One of the most wonderful things to witness is the very young children who accompany their parents on visits. Young kids don’t have a fear of aging – they accept these people as grandmas and grandpas. They play, talk, and assist naturally, without expectations.

    I understand your internal conflict, Adrienne, and hope that you’ve gained strength from your visit. It’s wonderful that your husband wants you to be part of this decision about possibly placing his own parents. When we realize that getting old is a natural part of living, we will be better prepared to face our own aging process. Thanks for a chance to share some of what I’ve learned over the past nine years.

    Like

    1. I’m so happy you shared this. Your thoughts and experiences in this area are extremely appreciated. You write so poignantly about your mother on your blog.

      I noticed a few of the women happily chatting with each other which was nice. And the staff seemed great.

      Once I had an extended hospital stay where I wasn’t allowed to move for weeks. It was interesting to see how different doctors and nurses treated me. Some saw me as just a complicated case to figure out but some were so incredibly generous with their time and hearts. It was actually a lesson in dependence on others, inner strength and how important small gestures are. We always hear this but the reality of human kindness in hard times had a profound effect on my life.

      I’m so glad that you found a nice place for you mother!

      Love,
      A

      Liked by 1 person

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