Senior Musing

About a year ago a friend recommended a book whose title I jotted into my phone. My short term memory is waning and if I don’t write something down it gets forgotten immediately. Last week I finished a book titled The Jolly Roger Social Club, and immediately began searching for my next read. The usual trip to the library failed to produce a current title that struck my fancy so I opened my notebook on the i-phone. I found a title called Recessional recommended by my friend Tom an avid reader. The author,  James Michener is one of my favorites.

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The story revolves around a Senior living complex in Florida, and the characters are all my age. The complex has three levels. The first is apartments for totally independent residents. The second is for people who need some form of assistance with care, and the third is long-term care. Thankfully the story begins with characters that are full of life and amazingly active. I learned a new word, tertulia meaning a group of people gathered to discuss the arts, or any other current topic of interest.

One of the benefits of this type of living is that the residents can prepare their own meals in their apartment or order from the kitchen to eat in, or they can assemble in the dining room to eat any or all three daily meals. A group of four men eat at the only round table standing in a corner of the room. Comprised of a Senator, Ambassador, Editor, and a business President. They were considered the brains of the home. I took a liking to this group because it resembles the group I belong to made up of widowers who meet regularly to discuss anything and everything. These characters took their friendship one step further by convincing the management to allow them a workshop in which the planned to build an airplane. That is my kind of retirement living.

Michener always teaches the reader something. In this story he covered retirement village living and management, AIDS treatment, living wills, and hospice care. It didn’t surprise me that he wrote the book just three years before he died at age ninety. He was most likely one of the characters in the story. Michener began writing when he was forty years old and his very first book Tales of the South Pacific won a Pulitzer Prize. Over the next fifty years he wrote forty-one books. Most of them are epic one thousand page stories. The man never let up either he was writing or researching. His most popular book is Hawaii with 45 editions. Can you imagine running out of a title and having to print more forty-five times, I can’t.

This story was a can’t put it down read, but because it was about my life, or rather my future life, it saddened me whenever one of the characters died. Most died of natural causes, but one man committed suicide after his wife died so he could be with her. The bulk of the characters and the plots they appeared in were for the most part uplifting, and the book is well worth the time to absorb, and there is much food for discussion in a tertulia setting.

Lunch At the Home

Today, I had the pleasure of sharing lunch hour with Peg and five ladies at the rehab center. When I arrived Peg was busy in conversation with Gert a short haired little lady to her right. What amazed me was that neither of them have very good hearing. The back ground noise of construction, clattering silverware, and many conversations made it hard to hear anything. Add the fact that Peg and most of the ladies there suffer from dementia and words don’t come to them. Still they were consumed by conversation. I must have missed something, because I haven’t been able to understand anything Peg has said  for the past six months. I did notice that they used a lot of facial expressions, smiles, finger points, and head bobs. Somehow it seems to work for them.

I began spoon feeding Peg, and observed what was going on around us. Across the table was another short-haired, white-haired lady with an extremely sharp chiseled nose named Annette. She was bent over, her head barely above the table. Her son-in-law Ray came to help her eat. He placed a clip board in front of her with a blank sheet of paper, and a pen. Annette began to write. She tried telling him something, but the volume of her voice was a whisper. As weak as her voice was she held the pen firmly and wrote smoothly without hesitation. I never did learn what she wrote, but she filled an entire page before she began to eat. An aid brought her a plate of food which had been macerated. Her ham and cheese sandwich looked like a scoop of pink mashed potatoes. Ray handed her a spoon and Annette took a scoop of the pink stuff and held it under her face. She raised the spoon toward her lips and stopped half way unable to make it to her mouth, her hand dropped. She tried again, but failed. The third time she lifted her hand as far as it would go, and dropped her mouth down to meet it. A vision of Tim Conway of the Carol Burnette show streamed through my mind. Meanwhile, a nurse placed a glass of protein shake in front of Gert. She snubbed her nose at it. A  drip hung from the tip of her nose. She was visibly upset about the drip and slowly raised the edge of the table cloth to blot it. An aide spotted her too late and came running with a handful of kleenex. Gert reached for the protein shake and tipped the glass spilling it across the table. She made the move so smoothly it was hard to tell if she did it on purpose. My guess is she didn’t want to drink it, so she disposed of it.

I sat on Peg’s left, and beside me sat Rose. A very active ninety-two year old Italian lady. She is the only resident not using a wheelchair. She walks to the dining room with her purse hanging off her shoulder and sits at the head of the table. Everyday she has the same thing, heavily buttered raisin toast, a cheese omelet, and two cups of coffee with three creams each. Today, she waits and feels ignored. Not to be left out, she rises from the table and heads for the kitchen to get her coffee. She returns empty handed with an aide following her with the coffee in one hand three creams in the other. Rose sits again pours the three creamers into the coffee. Her omelet arrives. There is no toast, and she waits again. Her greatest enjoyment is to break off a piece of toast and dip it into her coffee and eat it like a biscotti. Having waited long enough she rises and proceeds to the kitchen to get her raisin toast.  “We’re making it Rose,” comes the voice of an aide. Rose returns and two minutes later the toast arrives. Rose is finally happy.

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Anna, an aid, arrives to encourage Rose to eat. Anna looks across at Peggy and says in her heavy Polish accent “why you not smiling?” Peg stares with contempt at the aid who takes care of her. She has grown to dislike Anna, but cannot tell me why. Then Peg flashes a big toothy and phony smile at Anna, and says, “that’s because you are full of shit.” I almost fell out of my chair.

Happy Hour At the Nursing Home

As a young father I often lectured my kids on how we must always take care of old people. Most of the time it was during the drive to see grandparents or Aunts. “If we don’t do it, no one else will,”  I told them. They are the people who were young and alive once just like we are today. Just because they have become wrinkled, sick, and can’t get around as much anymore does not mean we give up on them. I tried my best to live by that example all my life. First it was my wife’s mother, then my own parents, then my wife, then her aunt, and now it is someone new. There is always an older person who needs love and attention. If we don’t give it to them, who will? Certainly not Uncle, yet there are laws on the books for taking care of people. One of them has established a department called Public Guardianship.

A Public Guardian is a person who works for the agency. He/she gets the job of taking care of a person’s life. First, the agency must convince the judge that this person can not take care of themselves. Once the judge rules on the matter the guardian takes over, and assesses the person’s estate. The court orders the guardian to  establish a trust for the person’s belongings.  The person must leave his home and live under the care of a new home. Usually, the new home is an assisted living facility or nursing center.  One of the first things a guardian does is to pre-arrange the person’s funeral. The cost of cremation, burial, etc. are pre-paid from the estate if there is one. The law defines what happens when there is no money in the person’s estate for funeral expenses.

It is sad to know someone who is under guardianship. Right now, I happen to know someone who is in pretty good physical condition but who has challenged cognitive ability. The person often forgets things, becomes easily confused, and therefore will not know where they are or how they got there. Yet, the person is totally capable of walking out of the place.

Yesterday, Peggy and I visited this person at the nursing home. I wondered how old I have to get before someone else has to take care of me. The person we visited is only seven years older than I am. Time has become my most precious commodity. Whatever time I have left is too short to carry out what I have in front of me. Time will ultimately lose to health. A loss of health cancels time and that which was once your most precious commodity takes a back seat to living with disease. Those things that drive me will become insignificant and meaningless.

We found our friend in a state of depression. The realization that a guardian has total control over life had set in. The realization that there are strict rules to follow have taken away human dignity. The idea of not being able to wander around at will is atrocious, kind of like being a young child again with a very strict parent controlling your every move.

We planned the visit as a pop-in pop-out, but turned into an afternoon. We even stayed for “happy hour.”

When I think of ‘happy hour” I envision a group of people in a strange place meeting new friends, drinking, and noshing to while away time from home. Happy hour at the nursing home begins with a rush of wheelchairs pushed  into the coffee shop. A staff member distributes plastic soup dishes filled with Cheetos or popcorn to the residents. A staffer wheels a portable bar into place. It has wine and spirits for a price. A juke box plays songs from fifty years ago. The room crowds with residents, family, and staffers chattering about the fun they have at happy hour.

Elaine, an eighty-eight year old joins us with her daughter Katie. Katie related that when she visits her mom, everything is fun and fine, life is good. When Katie leaves, her mom calls Katie’s sister to come and take her out of the “hell hole.”  We laugh. The truth is not funny though. It is evidence that the residents of this beautiful facility with friendly staff, and activities galore are not enough to make up for the loss of dignity felt by the residents who must live out their lives there.

Dear God, please take me suddenly while I am visiting an older person during happy hour at the nursing home.

Rest in Peace Aunt Marie

Marie at Ninety-fourBack in July, I wrote a post regarding my Aunt Marie. It was her ninety fourth birthday. We celebrated at her home in Franciscan Village in Lemont, Illinois. She was somewhat pensive that day, but she did the best she could to enjoy the moment. Last week she took a turn for the worse. In all the many times she was hospitalized, she bounced back readily. This time she was different. The problem that put her there was serious, and required some major body interventions. As her DPOA (Durable Power of Attorney), I made a the decision for her. I stopped all further treatments, and signed her up for hospice. It was time to let nature takes its normal course. 

It isn’t easy watching someone die. In fact it can be downright ugly. Yet, it can be beautiful at the same time. Witnessing a person’s pain, and discomfort is ugly. Knowing that the pain and discomfort is short lived, and that spiritual reward is near, is beautiful.  

She had many visitors last Friday, luckily, I was one of them. I sat next to her bed talking with Mary and John, a couple of friends who grew up with her. We watched her breathing while she slept. Then, I suddenly realized that she was not moving any more. She had passed quietly, painlessly, peacefully right in front of the three of us.

My Barbara never let me have that experience. She knew I was on the way to her side, and she let go before I got there. I missed her last breath by ten minutes. We had said goodbye to each other the day before while she was still conscious. Six years later it is still painful to remember.

After everyone left Marie’s room, and I was alone with her, I cried. I told her I would miss her, and I thanked her for letting me take care of her.  She was was my last connection to Barbara. Days before Barb died, she gave me an order to take care of Marie. I did my best, and now the job is nearly completed.

Yesterday, we gave Marie a great send off with a Mass of Christian Burial, and then entombed her next to husband Henry at the mausoleum In Resurrection Cemetery. By her direction, the luncheon afterward was at the Landmark. She insisted on an open bar with a family style Polish meal, and special order dumplings. 

Aunty Marie Golema

Born:         July 16, 1915

Died:         September 25, 2009

She is at heavenly peace.

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