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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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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The Revenge of My Father

As my father got older, into his 80s, he was cold all the time. I remember being at our family cottage in Wisconsin and wanting to swim in the lake on a day that was warm but not hot. He stood on the pier, wearing a cardigan and long pants, and watched me enter the water. “Aren’t you cold?” he asked, and it seemed a silly question. It was summer, the sun was out, and the temperatures were maybe in the low 80s. How could he be cold?

All winter long, my father, who had been skinny all his life, wore long johns—inside the apartment he shared with my mother, and even with the thermostat set at 70. When my siblings and I visited, we would complain about how hot it was and ask if we could turn down the heat or open some windows, while we rolled our eyes at each other.

In my youthful arrogance, I must have thought my parents were coddling themselves. Maybe if they got out more or experienced the real cold outside, they would see that their apartment was too warm. I thought this, even though I knew my dad loved to walk, that he exercised every day even if it was just circling the interior of the retirement facility in winter.

And now I’m old, and I feel the cold more intensely, wrapping myself in my fleece robe once it gets dark. On a day when it’s 40 degrees outside, I’m wearing a parka, hat and gloves, while younger people are out in shorts and tank tops. I suspect they are sneering at my bundled-up outfit, while they’re running loose and free. And I look at them in amazement, as my dad once looked at me, and think, “What’s wrong with them? How can they not be cold?”

Not a Slave to Fashion

I remember clearly the first time I chose function over fashion. I was in my 50s, ready to go for a walk on a cold day, and I had a choice between a hat that was fashionable and less warm, and one that was warmer but made me look like an old lady. I went for warmth.

I never cared that much how I looked, although for most of my life I followed the current fashion trends. In high school and college, I dressed in mini-skirts and platform heels, and when the hippie era came along, I wore bell-bottom pants and peasant blouses. In my working years, my attire was pant suits and dress shoes.

But once I stopped working in an office and could stay home, I was only too happy to slip into comfortable slacks and loose shirts. From there it was down the slippery slope to pants with elastic waist bands—ideal for an aging body beginning to sag. I haven’t yet gone as far as my onetime elderly neighbor, who in warm weather wore muumuus—those loose dresses that hide a multitude of body issues—but I can see the attraction.

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