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I didn't plan to grow old like this

Image Dick Weinman amongst the grapes resized

I was startled by the noise behind me – the clicketey-clack of wheels on the carpet of my apartment. I turned my head.  There she was – hunched over that unique walker, with its funny looking transporters –- the rear cut-in-half -neon-lemon tennis balls; the front baby stroller wheels. And the sorry wail:  “Is the lady in charge here?”  An all too familiar sound:  whiny, throaty, and uncertain.  Here in my apartment of the Assisted Living Facility (ALF), I had heard that muttering noise many times from out in the hallway.  I should have closed my door.

I’ll call her Emma. The caregivers call her B36.  Emma, succumbing to dementia, is one of the casts of characters of seventy, eighty, and ninety-year-olds in my ALF, this passion play of the passage through aging.

Once in awhile, the passage veers.  Goes sideways.  Sours.  Like mine – and my wife’s:

She was only sixty-two.  Ginny, my loving partner of fifty-eight years was taking her first steps on the path of aging – then her brain went berserk:  fibers and tangles and plaques willy-nilly.  Alzheimer’s twisted her off the straight and narrow.  Now we’re in two different worlds.

Also eight years ago, I was an independent, healthy, well conditioned, athletic seventy-two year old.  I ran, biked, lifted weights; and was aging healthily and normally.  I thought I would continue living the independent life.  I would run with my friends (I had more 10 Ks in me).  Then – all of a sudden -- I went sideways. I was on my way to assist my wife in the morning at the Alzheimer’s home into which I had placed her, but I never got there.  My mini-van collided with a cement mixer – the truck survived in better condition than me.  Now at eighty-years-old, I’m wheelchair bound and disabled.

Ginny and I are separated in mind and body – both thrown off our planned journey of aging together.

There are many residents in our ALF who travel sideways through senescence.  We have identities.  We have names – when we talk to one another.  When we are talked of – by caregivers or staff, we are where we reside in our residency.  As I said, Emma is B36.  I’m A8.

After Emma surprised me, I rolled my wheelchair over to her, “Go that way and ask someone,” I softly suggested, pointing down the hallway.

“Thank you,” she whined, sounding guilty that she had asked.  She seemed stunned for a moment, and remained standing.  I waited, looking up from my wheelchair at her sad, worried face.  Her confusion burst from her, “I can’t get in my room. I don’t know where my key is.”

I spied a caregiver down the hall, and yelled for her to please come and help disoriented, confused B36.

When I’m in my room, my back to the door while at my computer, I frequently hear Emma mumbling and “hoho-ho-ing” as she bends over her walker, rolling in the hallway.  I think she chatters to herself in an attempt to bolster her confidence as she shuffles behind those cut-out tennis balls and stroller wheels of the walker.  She also calls out the numbers of the apartments and the residents’ names, as she makes her way from the dining room to her apartment. From apartment to dining room and back three times daily! What a dreadful way to spend a day!

Before every meal, I wait in my room, trying to avoid the big push by the caregivers to get those residents unable to walk or those with dementia into the dining room . Not me. I’ll go when I want. Not in the cavalcade.  I stay at my computer to conclude an email, or finish reading to the end of the page of my book, or fiddle with the TV to set up the start of a DVD – anything to hold back, to hold on to my independence.

That’s when I hear a caregiver knock at B36 to remind Emma that it’s time to join the surge, and walk down the hall to the dining room. Every time, she refuses the caregiver’s urging because she says she doesn’t have the money to pay for the meal.  And every time she is told that her meal has been paid for.  Hearing that produces a sigh: “OK.”  Her resistance collapses.  Every day at every meal, I hear the same conversation at the door of her room:  the uncertain, “no”; the giving in of, “OK.”  Wearing her yellow cardigan sweater, she pushes her walker down the hall, muttering.

Meanwhile I have chosen to join the community in the dining room and have paddled my feet to move my wheel chair, and taken my place.  Emma finally arrives after the meal has started, and usually sits at the same long table, alone.             

*****

When Emma slipped into my apartment, I had been ready to go to the nearby coffee house.  A friend was going to push me there in my wheelchair.  I anticipated a stimulating afternoon of coffee and conversation in a lively environment, and following the episode with Emma, my plans rolled smoothly ahead. I was pushed to the “Bean and Brew,” and enjoyed the pleasantly mysterious aroma of roasted Sumatra beans and the bracing feeling of the fullness of the coffee. (No wonder it’s been consumed for centuries.)

As I’m rolled from the coffee house back to my ALF, I sink relaxed into the wheelchair cushion.  I exhale as my shoulders untie. The sun glitters from the tree leaves, a few wisps of white fluff float in the blue which panoplies the sky . . . it’s such a happy difference to where I’m headed.

I inhale.  My body absorbs the sun’s warmth. I luxuriate in the pinks of the gently swinging branches of the blooming trees. I sweep into my nostrils the sweet breath of the flowers planted along the way.  I delight in the festival of yellows, reds, lavenders, violets, orange and the revel of other colors that crowd the walkways.  As my silver hair flairs in fine strands in the breeze, I smile. Then I spy the grey building I’m about to enter. I frown.

I wheel into the thickness of its gloomy atmosphere.  I see the three women who are there most of the time during the day. With a mordant mental smile, and a noire nod to Shakespeare, I bitterly refer to them as “The Weird Sisters.”  They are figures in a wax museum.

There is the “sister,” I’ll call Beatrice. Her head droops on her chest, she wheezes while she sleeps on the upholstered chair in front of the faux wood fireplace.  With a wide-eyed stare, she clutches a teaspoon, which she waves in the air to greet people as they enter the facility, singing, “dee. dee. dee. dee. da. da. da. da.”

Beatrice wallows in her chair from early morning into night.  She’s sometimes dressed. Sometimes she wears only a night gown. Beatrice also prowls the halls, “ugh-ugh-ughing” and “oh-ah-oh-ah-ing” and laughing.  She walks into rooms, as if they were hers (Alzheimer’s victims often do that).  Her daughter reprimands her – “naughty girl” – caregivers remind her “No No.”  She promises not to do it again.  Then she does.

Beatrice also takes two or three teaspoons from the dining room at each meal - which she takes to her room. When caught, she says she won’t take the silver again. Then she does.

There’s a photograph of Beatrice on her apartment door.  She’s B42.  Beatrice was lovely. The image is that of a beautiful, twentyish young woman.  Her saucily tilted head is framed by yellowish-brown hair.  Her bright, happy eyes gaze from a shiny, smiling face.  She smiles at those who come to her door.

Normal aging (that’s why we’re all in Assisted Living) has made that image memory. Dementia has erased that memory.   Like Emma, senescence has been driving Beatrice forward; Alzheimer’s has sent her sideways.

The second “sister” is Claire; Room A18.  Claire was a doctor’s wife, a partner as he strove through med school, in that happy, but poor environment of the married student.  Later she traveled the cocktail, dinner party, route of the medical social world.  Now, Claire has difficulty in carrying on a coherent conversation.  She can’t recognize some of her family.  She laughs nervously a lot when she can’t think of what to say.  Now there’s a walker in her life, heard clacking away as she paces the hallway.  She, too, is slipping sideways.

Beatrice and Claire sit . . . and wait . . . for something.  That’s their day.

The last is Lill. She sits, too.  But she seems to be doing something – the person I’ll call Lill, reads, or seems too.  Her face is always in a book – reading and comprehending.  Or passing dully through the day?  The book I notice is by Tony Hillerman, an Indian detective mystery. This kills the boredom of this day; or it could be reliving the excitement of a former life, in the love and lust romances of Danielle Steel.

And the days pass.  A Madame Toussau adornment.

My friend who pushes me to the coffee house, and who frequently is in the ALF, dourly calls this a, “scene of sadness.”

My fear is that it’s catching.

It’s a false fear.

It’s simple: growing old brings physical changes as the body gradually wears out.  That’s not catching. It’s inevitable.  And universal .

If a person isn’t stricken sideways and has the unencumbered capability to look on his/her life, he/she can determine their journey through aging.  Is the aging life vital, valuable, worth living?  Does it have purpose? Meaning?  Or do we secretly desire to break the sameness; to find diversion from the boredom of doing nothing? Bingo or non-stop reading?   Or are we just waiting for an end to it all?

These choices assume we are on a straight trajectory through aging, a straight through, stop-at-every-station local train rather than a pass-right-by-the-normal-stages-of-aging super speed. What choices do we have if the tracks cross, and we are shunted sideways – my disabling accident, Ginny’s brain fiber tangling, Emma’s and Beatrice’s and Claire’s Alzheimer’s? We go asunder. Flying willy-nilly - sideways.

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