The mind is a mystery. My mother had Alzheimer’s before we knew what it was. Three things seem to out last memory and logic: humor, music, and faith.
When mom was living with us, one day when I was stressed out doing bookkeeping at the kitchen counter, she insisted on starting dinner. So, finally I put a large pot of water on for corn on the cob and a small pot of water for one package of frozen broccoli and told her to just put them in when the water came to a boil. She called me over later saying, “Something’s wrong, this doesn’t look right.” She had put the corn in the small pot where it was now dry and burning and the broccoli was in free float in the huge pot of water. My response was not kind or spiritual. I shook my head in despair and exclaimed, “Oh, my God!” Quick as a flash, she responded, “Call on someone you know!”
Some years after her death, I was leading devotionals at a nursing home. I kept wondering as I spoke, whether I should call a nurse to check pulses, since most of my “listeners” seemed comatose. But when we started singing the old hymns, they all came to life and knew every word of every hymn.
It may be music or it could be faith. Because one of my favorite nursing home stories is about an elderly woman whose memory was failing. A caregiver was helping her get into her nightgown, when the woman asked her, “What is my name? I seem to have forgotten who I am.” Before the caregiver could reply, the woman smiled and pointed to a picture of Jesus on the wall, and said, “Never mind, he knows who I am and that’s all that matters.”
I am seventy-eight, but though forgetful, I’m reasonably functional and can still drive. I have a friend who is ninety-two, another who is only seventy, and one who is seventy-seven. All live either with a working daughter or alone.
None of them drive anymore and the seventy-seven year old seemed to be sinking into severe dementia the last couple of years. She lives an hour away from me and I have been knee deep in grandchildren with school out, and when I finally grab some time to call her to see if I can take her to lunch, she says she is too tired or feeling badly. But, I saw her today and she was as sharp as a whip. She has a care-giver now and had played bridge yesterday and was very excited about playing in a tournament tomorrow. She explained all the challenges to the brain from playing bridge to me. She didn’t need to just get out, she needed something that challenged her and gave her a sense of accomplishment.
At sixty-five the seventy year old was mistakenly diagnosed as having inoperable lung cancer and told she might have only five years to live. She is a talented artist. But, she lives alone and the last few years she has gone from depressed to the point of being suicidal to having frequent panics about her health that involve trips to the ER. Her only daughter is a very successful career woman and is often out of the country.
The ninety-two year old broke her hip two years ago and sits home alone out in the country about twenty-five minutes away from both town and me, because all her children work. She struggles with depression, but has no interests or talents to keep her mentally stimulated. She reads some, but her eyesight is failing and makes it difficult.
I have spent the last four or five years either visiting with them or taking them in pairs out to lunch, shopping, to museums or to women’s study groups. But as each has become more unsteady, using canes or walkers, I have needed to take them each separately because of fear of one of them falling. My life includes a husband who still works and has health issues, and eleven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, some of whom have handicaps, so I try to spend quality time with them. I have a blog with posts that I hope to turn into a book. At seventy-five I started doing some very small gigs as a stand-up comic. I lead worship services once a month and several times a year give presentations to women’s groups I’m in. What I am seeing is that when I am busy elsewhere, often there’s no one to help these women get out of the house, and they go down hill rapidly both mentally and physically.
Sadly, since my husband and I have a chance to travel abroad this fall, and there are a lot of preparations and planning involved, lately I have less and less time for my friends. I feel both guilty and resentful. The women were there for me in earlier stages of my life and I want to be there for them. But often I have to neglect home, husband and my writing trying to be there for them.
Our small church women’s group has one member dying with ALS, another with early onset dementia, several are shut in’s with debilitating physical issues, two women are newly widowed, another woman’s husband has Alzheimer’s and a couple of women are nursing their husbands back to health after major surgeries. There are more women needing help than there are helpers.
I was all for women’s freedom to have careers and get equal pay for their work. I don’t think all women are designed to be mothers anymore than all men are designed to be plumbers. But now even women who have no desire to have a career need to work because the economy has adjusted to two paycheck families. There are simply no family caregivers anymore.
Sadly my three friends didn’t see a need to become computer and internet savvy and now it’s probably too late for them to feel brave enough to try. I think this is the easiest way for the women coming along right behind us to prepare for a day when they may be home-bound.
Even the buses created to take the elderly to doctors, grocery stores and Senior Centers are challenging. Some have backs that let down for wheel chairs, but are not really easy for someone on a walker or using a cane. In rural areas the fees can be an obstacle, particularly for taking people to a more urban area for medical care. The timing for people going different places often leaves sick or crippled people waiting literally hours to get home.
Our medical miracles are keeping us alive, but our options and quality of life are diminishing. This is the challenge the fifty year olds of today will soon be facing.
Whatever time is left
Use it up
Wear it down
Regardless how thin
The fabric becomes
It is rich with the sounds
Salty with tears and
From the poem Time on the blog: poetry, photos, and musings, oh my – by lea
Six years ago, my ninety-one year old friend Barbara, who was on a walker from a painful hip surgery, expressed her despair from feeling useless. But as we shared lattes with a friend in her mid sixties, who has slow growing cancer, we laughingly imagined walkers for us like baby walkers with crinoline skirts to hide them, and small secret Porta-Potties built in. Then, in the parking lot as we attempted to help Barbara into the van, somehow she got stuck bent over half way in. We tried to gently boost her backside without hurting her hip, until the giggles overtook us. Frozen in place, the three of us laughed helplessly, humor overcoming even our fears of age weakened bladders. When I called Barbara the next morning to make sure she hadn’t been hurt, she started laughing all over again, insisting she had been laughing all morning just thinking about it, and even wished we had a photograph.
The next day, I visited my friend with dementia in a nursing home in Nashville. She had once again dreamed of her parents’ death as a present day event and had awakened overwhelmed by loss and frantic about funeral arrangements. Each time she grieves anew, I can only hold her hand and ache for her endless losses. But later, seeing the wonder in her eyes, when she listened to me telling one of the caregivers about her courage and faith and her kindness to so many in her life, I recognize a moment of grace even in the now worn fabric of our lives.
The following day, my alarm went off three hours too early and I had the coffee made before I finally noticed the actual time. Later, I realized on my first stop of the day, that I had my coat on inside out. That night at a my sister-in-law’s eightieth birthday celebration in an upscale restaurant, I somehow managed on my second trip to the bathroom, to go into the men’s room. Then when leaving, I couldn’t find my coat check number in my tiny purse. Since I don’t drink, I couldn’t even blame it on something temporary. At least it’s fodder for a blog post.
The Gold in the Golden Years are our friendships and shared memories, but perhaps most of all, the freedom to laugh at ourselves. Laughter is carbonated grace.
Wishing all of you a joyous Christmas season filled with laughter. Eileen
The Gifts of Age: Part Five: If Old Age is Better than the Alternative, We Are All in Deep Doggie Doo
People talk about the stress of being a working mom, as if stress ends when either or both jobs stop. Who are they trying to kid?
Old lady stress is 24/7.
At night, as soon as you get your pillow nest all arranged to support aching backs and knees and burrow gratefully into it, doubt enters the room. Did I lock the doors? Did I turn off the stove? Did I switch the wet wash to the dryer? Did I take my pills? Yes, I think I did all that tonight. No, that was last night. Oh hell, I better go check.
Then, because your bladder is your only body part that’s gotten more active with age, there are at least three trips to the john every night. And since your early warning system is now deceased, these are made at warp speed, even on a walker. Panic is a great motivator. There should be an olympic competition for this. You wake up tired and wonder why.
The disconcerting end to what seemed like a reasonably nice day is realizing that you have gone all over town smiling today without your upper dentures.
It’s hardly uplifting to look up phone numbers in your personal directory, when it lists more dead people than living. And even after purging the lists, in six month’s it’s already back to gone again.
The first stage of dementia is becoming childlike in saying whatever you’re thinking out loud, then wondering why everyone is looking at you like you just farted.
The fact that you can’t introduce your best friend isn’t so bad, since she’s your age and can’t remember your name either. But when you mix up your grown son’s third wife’s name, it’s a whole different ball game.
When you see on face book that the younger members of your family are comparing miles walked or jogged each day, you think to yourself, If I had a pedometer, it would show at least ten miles walked each day looking for my glasses, my purse, and my coffee cup, coming back inside for my car keys, and going in and out of rooms at least three times each before I remember why I went in. No wonder I’m so tired at night.
Your new four letter word shouted frequently is WHAT? And a dinner party of peers is mostly everyone shouting WHAT? and then pretending to hear the replies. Though irritating, it doesn’t really matter much, since no one will remember anything by the time they get home anyway.
Cleaning gets increasingly complicated when vertical surfaces are covered with the latest in home decor for the elderly, post it notes. And there are also stacks of everything imaginable on all level surfaces, because now out of sight, means lost forever.
Sudden loud noises bring out homocidal urges you haven’t had since your kids were teenagers.
Your hearing turns mysteriously obscene, as you now confuse the initial sounds of words and can’t believe they are saying that on primetime TV.
Going to lunch with a friend involves a ten minute struggle to untangle the walkers from the back of the station wagon. And going to the mall with several friends is like a parade without a band, slow moving lines of walkers, the rolling kind.
When you express worry about some of the disasters being experienced by of others your age, your children encourage you to be thankful that’s not you. And you mentally add the word, yet.
Many weeks, if you didn’t go to so many funerals, you’d have no social life at all. And you remember that you used to wonder why your older friends were depressed.
When everyone’s talking about diets, you’re thinking, Sure. Like I’m going to give up my last pleasure in life, so I can look good in my casket.
Your grand and great-grandchildren are the bubbles of joy in the cesspool of old age, but also the barbs of reality. When sitting in your lap, looking up at you with their big innocent eyes, they ask, “Grandma, why do old people have turkey necks?”
And you grit your teeth and freeze a smile on your face, when your great-grandson proudly introduces his fiancee, the tattooed lady with enough metal appendages to set off airport security alarms.
There’s really only one thing worse than getting old, (I’m personally going to be really pissed if it turns out to be death). To me, it’s your husband getting old. Most of us thought if we married, we’d always have someone able to open jars, move heavy furniture, and clean the gutters. Another fairy tale bites the dust.
But other than these, old age is a piece of cake. Whenever you can get to the bakery.
Hilde, my old friend, my sister-in-Christ
lost and fragile in your fog of confusion,
let me lead you, carry you even
back in time to the truth of you.
Of you rising like a phoenix from the ashes
of a broken heart from a failed marriage
inspiration for us all, a mother of two
starting over, learning to restore the voices
of the silent young, the broken, the old,
your gifts lavished on the least of His,
bringing to life the Good News of God’s love
for those with simple minds, but open hearts.
Hilde, my old friend, my sister-in-Christ
lost and fragile in your fog of confusion
let me lead you, carry you even
back in time to the truth of you.