dining at assisted living “You may call me Kathleen,” she demurely whispered, as if daintily raising a flimsy lace handkerchief to dab a nostril. “I’m Geraldine,” said the deep voiced lady at the end of the table.  “My name is Viola,” chirped  the tiny presence in the middle.  More robustly, the assured, staid holder of the corner seat, said “ refer to me as Carmen.” Then Elizabeth and Ruby took turns introducing themselves.

I’m an eighty-one year old, disabled resident of this ALF, writing about my life as a resident of an Assisted Living Facility.  Sitting in the dining three times a day, I’ve been magnetized by these laughing ladies. I see their grey haired heads bob and toss, as they produce joyful sounds of glee.

Here’s how it looks:  picture the letter T.  The ladies sit around the bar at the top of the T.  I’m all the way at its bottom.  My table doesn’t find life as humorous as theirs. We grouse and frown a lot,  although complaining and unhappiness seem to be  constants of one of my table mates.

So, what’s so funny to these six ladies? An ALF is supposed to be – and often is – a depressing place,  peopled by dementia sufferers walking hither and yon, sitting in others’ seats rather than their customary places or waiting for caregivers to show them their regular seat;  lonely,  troubled persons, making up stories why their children don’t visit;  some  angry at themselves and the world.  Stuck here in the ALF.

That doesn’t seem to bother the Laughing Ladies. They have a merry old time. So, who are they?  What’s their secret?

First – and it’s a big first in our ALF – they’re all cognizant (well, maybe there’s a little Alzheimer’s in the mix, but it’s only at a mild stage and self-realized.)   Clear of mind, they have subjects for articulate conversation: they share personal stories, stories of children and grandchildren, books read and reading, the happenings of the day, and, as all residents do, the food and the daily meals.  They’re kind to one another, pointing out a piece of egg stuck to the corner of  a table mate’s mouth, or flicking a crumb off  someone’s sweater.

Their secret is not so secret: they are a community – within the larger community of the ALF.  They like each other.  They’re comfortable with each other. They respect each other.

As I peer at them from my wheelchair, they all seem perfectly capable of handling their own daily lives.  All can walk, albeit slowly; no wheelchairs are needed, although Carmen and Geraldine use a walker – but they stand upright and don’t hang on for dear life.

In fact, I ask myself, “Why are they here?”  Did they commit themselves, aware of their shortcomings (the ones I can’t see?) Who chose this life for them? (Usually, it’s a concerned daughter, worried about old mom.) I don’t see anything they can’t do for themselves.  Naturally, age has taken over; Elizabeth  bends as she shuffles. She is the frailest of the group, but with enough of an independent spirit to speak out.  Viola, despite her small frame walks speedily straight ahead, and as tall as she can. Kathleen moves confidentially, with controlled actions.

Carmen is the matriarch of the table.  I can tell from the way she smilingly saunters past our table as she heads to hers, pushing, rather than clinging to her walker.  Carmen has the most years invested in the ALF: she’s in her ninth decade of life, and was here when I entered. She has a past, like me, and remembers those who were here and have departed.  Carmen, like the other ladies, doesn’t seem to need much assistance traveling the experiences of daily living. And it’s been a long trip, but even though she’s in her mid-nineties. Carmen is  not the oldest: that would be Elizabeth – ninety-seven.

Carmen is the dispenser of the latest news and weather. Like a radio  “D.J.,” Carmen reports on what she’s seen on the “Today” show, heard on local radio, and read in the local newspaper.

Pert Viola carries herself with assurance.  She calmly relates that she has Alzheimer’s and that she may be forgetful.  Of course, at the age of suitability to live in an ALF  – eighty seven is the typical age of women – most of us are forgetful sometimes.   Viola looks to be in her late seventies.

Geraldine has a professional demeanor.  Full bodied, wearing her plaid business woman’s jacket, she pushes her walker, bouncily striding to her table destination.  She’s full voiced, and speaks through a smile – how happy she seems, even with the needs of her medical condition.

With no offense to all the Laughing Ladies, Kathleen, in her younger years, might have been referred to as “hot.”  She wears her good looks well, moves smoothly, and adds to her speech with graceful gestures.  When she speaks, I expect to hear a genteel drawl, as if she were a daughter of the south.

Could Elizabeth have been a teacher?  With her soft but clear voice, kindly expression, the tiny wrinkles on her round face surrounding wireless spectacles which shield soft eyes, she seems the image of the third grade teacher everyone remembers.  And as I roll past the open door of her room, I glance in at the neatness of her room, the furniture all in its right place, speaking to the tidiness of her mind and persona.

Ruby seems to be outside  the group – wrapped up in herself, a bit artificial – unlike the sincerity of the rest of the Ladies.   Ruby inhabits a tiny frame, with a wrinkled, round face, thin lips moving in and out of smiles, a smiley face when it’s proper, lips down when the moment has passed. The seat at the end of the table is always left vacant for her, because by now it’s known that Ruby will always show for a meal, even if she’s always late.  And she always offers the same set of excuses.  At breakfast, she couldn’t get up and dressed in time. At lunch, she’s just always late; no excuse.  At dinner time, she’s been embroiled in a card game with one of her children.  Each time she enters the dining room late, she smiles innocently, wrinkles her fingers as a wave to each of the Ladies one-by-one. Then raises and shakes her cup to indicate she wants her coffee hand or raises and shakes a finger as a signal for one of the caregivers to serve her, which they do.

Ruby is always cold. She exaggerates a shiver, folds her arms across her chest, and occasionally leaves to retrieve a coat from her room.  This behavior occurs regardless of the temperature, which is always set at the same level. Summer may be an exception to her frigidness.

These six ladies’ table, with its joyous sound stands out from the others in the dining room.  Even the tulips on their table remain full blossomed.  Ours droop and die. Is it because our table is somber, with complaints and dissatisfaction.  One table mate asks rhetorically, as we sit and wait to be served,  “Why are we brought to the dining room a half hour early?” She answers herself, “To sit and fume.” “We all need time to fume,” responds another member of our table.  I absorb it all, as does the other male inhabitant of our table. I chime in when I feel I should, but mostly smile and remain stoic. I keep my ailments to myself, unlike another table partner who reminds us all of her terrible conditions, and in the same breath, of her magnificent achievements – back when.

Most other tables are sober, with occasional quiet talk. Some people play word games. One table primarily is peopled by residents at various stages of dementia, except for a gravelly-voiced, former professor, who lectures and reads the newspaper to a group which has no idea of what he’s talking about, and blusters so that he can be heard by the entire dining room.

It’s not a fulfilling atmosphere.  But as a site to eat, it matches the repetitiveness and vapidity of the food.

But then, I just have to smile at the Laughing Ladies!

I’d like to join them but there are two obstacles: my gender, and there’s no room at the table.