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.

Even though my parents provided my siblings and I with healthy and filling meals, I absorbed the idea of scarcity. When we didn’t eat all the food from our plates, we were forced to sit at the dining table until we did, while being told that children were starving in China. It was a valuable message: food was precious, and we were lucky to have it.

In this pandemic, my instincts to hoard have served me well. I’ve always kept at least one or two weeks’ worth of food in my refrigerator and cupboards: dried beans, canned soups, pasta, canned salmon and sardines, frozen vegetables and meat—and, of course, chocolate bars. Although I’ve been prey to the panic that other shoppers have felt—I need my yogurt for breakfast—I know realistically that I’ll be OK for a few weeks.

Last week I needed to visit Whole Foods to pick up frozen food for elderly neighbors who don’t cook. The frozen foods, milk and eggs were almost gone but the tables of fresh fruit and vegetables were piled high, a veritable cornucopia: green and red peppers, 10 different kinds of lettuce, four kinds of kale, cauliflower, broccoli, avocados, apples, oranges. I wanted to grab as much as possible.

It must have been how my great-grandfather felt when he went into the neighborhood market in Chicago: food that you could buy off the shelf, instead of having to find it in the earth, and a seemingly unlimited supply.

It feels like we’ve learned a valuable lesson: what you need won’t always be there when you need it. Some people will take that lesson and hoard as much as possible; others will learn to live without.

I’m following the example of a 95-year-old friend who survived the Great Depression, World War II, the untimely death of her daughter and the more recent death of her husband. She’s taking this pandemic in stride, continuing her crocheting and keeping in contact with friends over the phone. She grew up on a Wisconsin farm where the family bathroom was an outhouse, toilet paper was a luxury, and pages from the Sears & Roebuck catalog were all you needed.

–Kathy Kaiser

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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