Take Me Home

When my mother was in the last months of her life, and suffering from moderate dementia, she told her caregiver she wanted to go home and several times tried to “escape” from her apartment in a senior facility to get back to that home— wherever or whatever it was.

Recently, a friend who has Parkinson’s and who also experiences dementia has started wandering away from her mountain cabin, telling her worried husband and the people who find her on the road that she wants to go home. When strangers ask her where that is, she’s unable to tell them, except that it’s “hundreds” of miles away.

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History Repeats Itself

It feels like 1968 all over again: a divisive president calling for law and order, mayhem in the streets, a divided society and distrust of the police, who we referred to as “pigs” back in the ’60s and ’70s—and for good reason.

In 1968, I remember watching with my father the Democratic convention. on TV. It was held in Chicago, where the police force viciously attacked mostly peaceful demonstrators in the streets outside the downtown convention hall, about 25 miles south of where we lived. While I watched with increasing horror as the police clubbed protesters, my dad was on the opposite political side, shouting “Get ‘em,” and “knock ’em down.”

There was a generational divide then that I don’t think exists now: between parents baffled and disgusted by their teen and young adult children who were letting their hair grow long, smoking pot, engaging in sex before marriage, burning the flag and rebelling against a country that our fathers fought for in World War II.

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The Gardening Gene

I come from a long line of gardeners. In the old country, my German grandparents came from peasant families who farmed outside their village. In the new country, they lived in a two-flat apartment on the north side of Chicago, where my grandmother grew what she could in their small backyard—the garden crammed between the garage and the neighbors’ fence (above, my father and his grandfather barely a corn stalk apart). Eventually, some yearning for the country and more room for planting spurred my grandparents to buy several acres of land 40 miles north of the city in what was then open farmland. There my grandmother planted rows of corn, tomatoes and green beans.

On Sundays aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents would gather together and enjoy fresh tomatoes and corn just picked from the stalk. I can still remember the taste of the corn that grew in that rich Illinois dark soil. And it was here, in her country garden, leaning over to pull carrots from the earth, that my grandmother had a heart attack that killed her at the relatively young age of 68, younger than I am now.

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Just Pass Me By

It’s tricky enough being an older person navigating a world that belongs to the young. But in this time of pandemic, it’s becomes even more problematic. A few weeks ago, I was walking on a path near my home, when a group of children and their mothers were heading straight for me. When we saw each other, we all froze in place, unsure of what to do. Because the path had a ditch on either side, I couldn’t move off the path and keep our distance at the prescribed six feet or more. Finally, I squeezed myself as close to the ditch as possible, and they silently walked by.

In normal times, they would have seen me smile, and I likely would have made some conversation, like “How are you doing?” or “Beautiful day,” but the mask prevented them from seeing that I was happy to encounter a bunch of children enjoying this spring day, and anything I said would have been muffled. The situation felt awkward, and after they passed me, I heard one little girl say: “Some people are just jerks.” Was she referring to me or someone else?

Since then, I’ve made it a point, when I encounter others on the path, of stepping off and loudly saying (through my mask) hello or waving. If they’ve stepped off the trail for me, I thank them loudly. Yet each encounter feels slightly tense, as if my presence requires some action on their part. Or maybe they regard me, as an older person statistically more susceptible to the coronavirus, with some suspicion. Maybe I’m a reminder of the deadliness of this disease, as if they spotted the grim reaper coming down the trail.

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Suffering Alone

For the past few months, hardly a day goes by that I’m not grateful that my mother died last August. I miss her, of course, but if she were still alive she would be sequestered in her apartment at the senior facility where she lived for the last three years of her life. Without visits from her children and grandchildren, and suffering from moderate dementia, her suffering would have been immense.

Even without the pandemic and lockdown, many seniors are isolated. Even those who, like my mother, lived in senior living facilities have to endure loneliness. Although there are plenty of opportunities for social interaction—dining with other residents, participating in yoga and art classes, going to the occasional concert—they are still isolated from the rest of the world. Visits with family or friends are the only ties to the outside world. When that is cut off, as it has during this pandemic, life can become very empty.

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Who Lives? Who Dies?

At a time when our resources, especially medical, are being stretched thin, everyone from politicians to health care workers have raised the issue of who lives and who dies in this pandemic. It’s a choice doctors and nurses are having to make every day in hospitals that are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients and where ventilators and other medical resources are scarce. Some politicians have even suggested that the cost of a few elderly people dying is less than halting our whole economy. Younger people have referred to the pandemic as the “boomer remover.”

Although shocking, it raises the question: is a young person’s life more valuable than an older person’s? In strictly biological terms, the answer is yes, because younger people are able to perpetuate our species; they can have children and raise families and are able to contribute to the economy. Those of us who are retired, even if we volunteer, are taking more than we’re giving: living off the fruit of our life-long labors.

And yet there’s a cultural value to the accrued wisdom of older people. In more traditional societies, it was the elders who carried with them the vast knowledge of survival: where to find food and shelter and how to keep peace and when to make war. In the animal kingdom,  elephant herds are often led by the older matriarch, the one that knows, for example, where to find watering holes when the land is dry.

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Confessions of a Hoarder

The instinct to hoard is in my genes. My Czech grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, saved everything. When she moved into a nursing home, my mother and I went through her house to get rid of stuff she wouldn’t need. I still remember, 40 years later, finding huge glass jars full of small items like rubber bands. One jar had nothing but bits of string, some as short as 4 or 5 inches long. After growing up in a time when people had almost nothing, she knew the value of pieces of string. You never knew when you would need to tie them together to make something useful.

My German great-grandfather came to this country from Europe as a young man. As a child, I would watch him eat every drop of food off his plate, as if it had been washed clean. In the old country, his family were peasants, never knowing if they would have enough to eat. In today’s language, they would have been called “food insecure.”

To this day, I can’t waste food. Even if a piece of cheese is going bad, I’ll carefully cut around the edges to eat what’s still good. It horrifies me when I see restaurant diners eating only a portion of their meal and not taking the rest home, which means perfectly good food is being thrown away. I’ve taken home friends’ meals when they didn’t want theirs, even when I didn’t particularly like their choices of entree.

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Aging in Place

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you feel truly old. The message that people over 60 are extra vulnerable and should stay home is being said loudly, clearly and repeatedly. In Scotland, adults over 70 are being told not to leave their homes for 12 weeks. Locally, on Next Door, the social media platform for neighborhoods, younger people are posting reminders to check on their elderly neighbors and get groceries for them. Meanwhile, grocery stores are letting seniors shop an hour before the stores open to the general public.

On the one hand, I’m grateful that people are concerned, but there’s a part of me that wants to protest: I’m still strong and independent; I’m not frail or helpless. This week, I shoveled snow from my driveway. I can hike 2-3 miles a day, lift a kayak onto the roof of my car, prune my trees and chop up the wood. So it feels strange to be lumped suddenly into a category of people who are vulnerable to not just getting sick but dying. And it feels just as odd to be lumped into any category, as if all older adults are the same.

Obviously there is a wide range of differences between those who are 75 and still ski (like a friend of mine does) and those who are 65 but overweight and sedentary. But in this frightening pandemic, there is no room for subtlety; urgency requires a sledgehammer rather than a fine tool to figure out who is the most vulnerable. It’s a scientific fact that our immune systems get weaker as we age.

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Leaving Home

After Maria had hip surgery, at age 87, and couldn’t live in her own home anymore, her daughter, Andrea, convinced her to move across the country to live in a senior facility near Andrea. But Maria, who was born in Poland, was never able to make friends at the facility. Back in Chicago, full of transplanted Poles, most people understood her thick accent. But in the Mountain West, with few people from her native land, her speech was unfamiliar, and residents at her senior facility avoided Maria because they couldn’t understand her.

Normally a happy person, Maria soon descended into depression. Even with a daughter  nearby, she was lonely. She missed her friends back in Chicago, her favorite Polish restaurants and the church she had attended much of her life.

I think of Maria when my friends talk about moving once they retire or get older, either to a place that has a better climate (warmer, with less rain and snow), that’s cheaper to live or is closer to their children, who hopefully will take care of them in their old age.

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