Saving Face

When my mother was in the last few years of her life, I could see how she learned to hide her dementia and hearing loss. To compensate for not comprehending what someone was saying, she would carefully read the other person’s face and listen to the tone of their voice, so she could respond appropriately. If I were smiling, she might say “That’s good.” If I were frowning or looked upset, she would say “That’s hard.” Sometimes she guessed wrong and would smile when I mentioned a friend who had cancer.

It was easier to pretend to understand rather than repeatedly asking “What?” I know that feeling because I do it myself sometimes. None of us want to appear to be failing, even to ourselves. We want to maintain the illusion that we are still in control.

My dad, who also had dementia, was braver than my mom or me. Once, when visiting with my cousins, we were all taking at once and over each other. My father finally had enough. “I can’t understand all of you. Can you talk one at a time?” He knew he was losing some of his abilities and wasn’t afraid to ask for help. Of course, this was the same man, who, in his 80s and no longer able to remember directions, took the car out by himself, against the pleadings of my mother, and got so thoroughly lost that it took the police two days to find where he left the car.

My mother, at least, knew when to stop driving. She announced one day that her eyesight wasn’t good enough, although her doctors thought it was fine. I suspected that the real reason was that she had a bad experience while driving, something she was too embarrassed to reveal. Maybe she got confused and almost caused an accident. But it was easier for her to blame her eyesight rather than admit she was losing control. Will I be brave enough, when the time comes, to admit I can no longer drive?

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The Pleasure of Speaking My Mind

Last year, before the pandemic, I spent a few days on vacation with two long-time friends, and I noticed how strong and independent we had become. We didn’t need someone to tell us to clean the kitchen or start dinner. If something needed to be done, we jumped in and did it. But we also knew what we wanted and needed and weren’t shy about saying so. Like “I need a nap now.”  Or “I can’t sleep with that light on.” Or “I can’t eat dinner that late.” Or “It’s too cold and icy to go for a walk.”

It occurred to me that if we were with younger people, they might judge us to be crabby old ladies. In fact, that’s how I judged my grandparents when I was young.  But now that I’m officially an old codger, I can see that old age confers self-knowledge and awareness that I didn’t have when I was younger.  

I remember a bus trip through Portugal when I was in my 30s. In the small-town plazas, old men sat on benches, enjoying conversations and a warm day. Their faces had so much character—lines and creases that reflected decades of easing into their true nature—and were more interesting to me than the faces of the young people, which seemed unformed and all alike.

Like many others, I loved the photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders at President Biden’s inauguration. He was sitting off by himself rather than hobnobbing with Washington’s elite, who were dressed up for the occasion. Instead, Bernie was wearing thick mittens and a sturdy down parka, and looking a little grumpy at having to be outside on a cold day. He was an old man trying to stay warm, and he didn’t care what anyone thought.

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The Cruelty of the Vaccine Lottery

I found out last week that I’m number 17,437 in line to get a Covid vaccine, although no one at my health care provider was able to tell me what that really signifies. Does this mean I’m days or weeks away from getting a Covid vaccine? Or months?

It was discouraging news, but then I heard about a 94-year-old woman here in Boulder whose number is 20,000-something. A social woman who loves to cook for others, she been isolated in her apartment since last March and has now fallen into a depression.  Why is she behind me in the vaccine line, when she is more than 20 years older?

I read that 80-year-olds and above comprise 54 percent of the deaths from the coronavirus, while people in their 70s account for 24 percent. So why are healthy 70-year-olds who are physically fit and able to leave their homes getting vaccinated before older and more frail seniors who have been languishing indoors for months? How is this fair?

I haven’t seen official figures for which age groups—in the 70-and-above category that is eligible now in Colorado’s phase 1B– are getting vaccinated the most quickly, so any information I have is anecdotal. But, among my friends and acquaintances, most of those in their 80s are still waiting, while most in their 70s have gotten their shots. I know this isn’t a deliberate decision to favor younger seniors, because from the little information out there about the vaccination process, I’ve surmised that health care providers are choosing randomly.

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