Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Don't Let Age Make You Her Bitch

Today I had lunch with an old friend of mine—my roommate from Artsworld. (If you’d like to learn more about Artsworld, this magical gathering of nerds from around the state, I wrote about it on May 17, 2006. Yeah, I couldn’t make a functional link to the exact entry. You have to scroll down.)

Anyway, lunch was fantastic, and a nice break from my existential weekend, particularly Sunday, a portion of which was spent with my family at my grandmother’s assisted living facility. My Grandma Dot is a vibrant, spunky 88, and it pains her a great deal to be stuck with a herd of deaf, forgetful, cataract-ridden old farts. My grandma still loves to flirt and dance and crack jokes, but most of her fellow residents…don’t. As we visited in the sunroom, a hunched-over man named Glenn cautiously pushed past with his walker, and Grandma Dot said, “Glenn. GLENN! This is my family. My family came to visit me.”

Glenn turned his head two degrees to the left in the time it might take a talented construction crew to erect a skyscraper. He was non-plussed, to say the least, sparking Grandma’s ire. Her good mood collapsed and she frowned. “Oh, you don’t hear me.” She adopted a mocking, sing-song tone and started snapping and shaking her fingers at him. She nearly stuck her tongue out at him; in fact, I think she did a little. “You old coot, you don’t hear, you’re all blah-blah-blah. Put your hearing aid in.”

Glenn seemed to know he was being made fun of and shook his head (in the time it might take for a civilization to rise, thrive, and fall), resuming his glacial trek to his room. Grandma was frustrated. If she could have punched Glenn in an age spot, she would have. “He has hearing aids, but he won’t wear them!” she vented to us, completely perplexed that her peers have allowed Age to make them her bitches. She crossed her arms, put them on her hips, refolded them across her body. And at this point, her eyes filled with tears.

The image of some of the more rutabaga-like residents slumped in chairs in the dayroom still fresh in my mind’s eye, I leaned over and whispered to my mother, “Good lord, this place is depressing as hell.”

My mother whispered back, “This is why your father and I are driving over a cliff.”

“Yeah right, you’ll be aimlessly tooling around in your beige Buick, looking for a cliff, unable to find anything but a gently sloping hill. And you’ll coast slowly down it and collide gently with a child’s backyard playset.”

Grandma shed more tears when we got ready to leave, and there was an endless waving good-bye from the sidewalk until our car disappeared beyond the horizon. We all remarked at how hard it was to see Grandma so sad.

I remember thinking, Christ, I don’t want to get old.

I’ve been on a major health-kick lately (even shunning onion rings and a turtle sundae on Saturday), working out, taking my vitamins, eating right. As we visited with Grandma Dot, still healthy, an orphan and a widow watching more friends and children and siblings die than anyone should ever have to, it occurred to me: why the hell am I taking such good care of myself? I don’t want to be the last one standing, wondering who will fill my dance card, holding conversations with turnips that don’t remember what I said five minutes ago, missing my long-dead loved ones, feeling alternately despondent and annoyed by forced group activities facilitated by an activity director named “Tuba Dan.”

I sometimes hear people say, “I only want to live ‘til ninety (or beyond) if I have my health and I’m still mentally sharp.”

Well, most things sound great in theory.
But gosh, look at this:


There are things that can make almost anything bearable.

23 comments:

  1. surcie8:07 PM

    I had my last birthday before 40 yesterday, so I'm feeling a little sensitive about the subject of aging (I couldn't possibly be over 25). But the photo is absolutely darling.

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  2. I'm 45. Life comes at you fast.

    That being said - I'm pretty sure babies make everything better.

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  3. I love the picture. It always makes me tear up to look at pictures of my girls with their great-grandmother. Even when I'm not riddled with pregnancy hormones.

    Cheers to your grandmother for making the most of what she's got.

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  4. Your post struck a chord with me today. Not sure why, but I'm all teary-eyed and tight-throated.

    I can't wait till your book comes out, because if it's anything like your blog posts, it's going to be amazing.

    It's good of you to visit your Gram, and I love the picture of her with the baby.

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  5. Your grandma sounds amazing! What spirit and fire for advanced age! It's terrible that she's in such a depressing place with turnips.

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  6. Did you hear that? That was the sound of my heart breaking... But babies can make everything better sometimes. :)

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  7. Here's your link, because I'm all anal and crap:
    http://jessriley.blogspot.com/2006/05/oh-what-wonderful-world-of-art.html

    Urm, as to getting old...My grandma fell and hurt herself when she was about 89, and was moved to an assisted living facility. Before that, she was living alone, caring for herself, only having retired from her full-time, graveyard shift job at Gallo wine at the age of 84. She took very good care of herself, eating healthy food, exercising, and taking vitimins. She now suffers from some level of dementia, cannot get to the toilet unassisted, cannot dress herself or get in and out of bed herself. I don't know what level of pain her arthritis gives her. She is cheerful and loves when family comes to visit, and yet...I'm not sure I want to be there someday.

    My dad and I were talking about it a few weeks ago, and we thought...hmmm...maybe we should take up smoking and stop wearing our seatbelts?

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  8. If I must go to a nursing home I will, but somebody better put on my TV and play my music for me.
    I love the picture, it made me think of my grandmother holding my daughter.

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  9. I can't decide if I love this post (because it's touching and funny) or hate it (because it makes me sad). Maybe if you weren't such a damn good writer it'd be easier.

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  10. My grandma is getting older and older and less independent and yet life is still so sweet for her.
    Actually, I'm tearing up just writing that. It's been a hard week.

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  11. My dad is 88, and sounds much like your grandmother--maybe without the spunk. But he is in good health and clear mind. Thankfully, he lives in a CCRC with my step-mom.
    I agree with you--no nursing home for me. Rutabagas--that's about right.

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  12. This one hit close to home for me. My grandmother is -- check it -- 100 years old and in an assisted living facility. She told me over ten years ago that life had ceased to be fun, that once all her peers had died and she had no "equal" to talk to, things just felt wrong.

    Sigh. My heart hurts for my grandmother. I do believe there's such a thing as being too old, I really do.

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  13. Well that was just sad. My dad had to go into an ALF at the age of 69 due to Alzheimer's. He's the youngest one there, and had a hard time adjusting. So I feel for your grandma. He never wanted to get this way and used to tell us to shoot him and bury him under the house if he ever got old and unable to care for himself! Luckily he is unaware of how things are for him at the moment. But I have since adopted his attitude. Shoot me, stuff me, mount me....just don't let me get old and unable to live independently.

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  14. What a cute baby! :-)

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  15. Her great-grandson. It's awesome that she's with it enough to be able to hold him and interact with him. We're taking Myles to meet my grandmother over Thanksgiving. She's got pretty severe dementia though, so I doubt she'll know who he is. l
    I don't know if it would be worse to be in a nursing home with all my faculties about me or to be blissfully unaware, but also not know my family.

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  16. My 4 year old niece attends a pre school that is attached to a nursing home. They visit with their "Grand Friends" once a week, and it's the cutest thing ever. That's the kind of place I'd want to be in, if I had to be in a place like that.

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  17. I used to do newsletters for a retirement facility. Everytime I swore after leaving it would be me, the car in the garage and a hose before I would live like that. I don't know how you know (unless you are suffering from something terminal) when its the right time though?

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  18. I know this...
    My grandmother was just put in a facility as well... and Gawd, it is horrible...
    Just because of lack of individuality, the fact thatthey are all old...Painted by the same brush and all blend into one...
    And considering in any village there are old and young having the old all housed together... It just makes your heart sad...

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  19. Jess, once again, you've capture with humor and love, another one of life's moments. Well done - clap, clap, clap!

    BTW, this will be no big deal to someone like you who has a blogroll, but I linked to your blog on my local blog: www.wauwatosanow.com. You're one of only 4 blogs. I wanted to give the good people of southeast Wisconsin a preview of a future best-selling novelist!

    Hugs from Brew Town!

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  20. Funny and very sad. I hope your grandma finds a kindred spirit there.

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  21. rachael5:15 PM

    It’s a shame that our society has come to this. It’s a shame that many, many older healthy but not completely able older folks end up feeling like a lost, forgotten orphans at these institutes for the decrepid and deteriorating. I know that many old folks homes and assisted living centers are nice places with nice people but they do not, nor ever will, compare to the “home” environment where family plays a central role in caring for and assisting the older individual. I know this is not practical for many families and some wouldn't even want it that way, but I guess I just see a kind of beauty in family taking care of it's own, as much as possible. Kind of like in asian (and other) cultures where the older people live amongst the family and not seperated out from it. Growing old doesn’t have to be what many people have made it and it doesn’t have to mean the end of stimulating conversation and living a full, enriched life...but a lot of that fullness and enrichment is dependent on the individual’s choosing it and the family and society stepping up to honor, respect, learn from and cheer on age instead of sweeping older folks under the rug to make way for newer prettier, shallower models. Older individuals can teach us so much about life (when we listen) and taking care of people who are not as young and spry as they used to be teaches us how to give, be patient, listen and it takes us out of the monotony of self absorption that permeates the very core of our society. Back in the day (not so long ago) homes were comprised of the very young and very old, being born, living and dying under one roof. THAT is life, full circle and it’s a shame that America has ditched this way of living for and distanced themselves so much from reality and meaning. Reading this blog made me sad and angry. Sad because there are way too many people in nursing/assisted living homes that are literally forgotten (not in this case but definitely many, many cases) and angry because our society has let it get to such a horrible state. We should take care of our own. I pray to God that I am allowed to grow old gracefully in the confines and safety of my family.

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  22. Geez girl. You're going to make me start smoking again. Although I have to say, I really love your Mom's cliff idea. ;)

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