When I was only 75, it didn't occur to me to think of myself as old...
But I'm 94 years old and you know, I'm starting to feel my age.
For the past few days my grandmother has been staying here at my parents' house, to see her great-grandchildren and to check out potential "retirement homes." (Ahh, what a nice euphemism. My grandmother has been retired from her career as a school speech therapist for what, thirty-five years?) For the past 24 of of them she's lived completely on her own in a beautiful "retirement community" -- there's that word again -- in the rolling hills of Northern California, where all residents are over 50, most own their homes, many drive,* and more than a few continue to lead active lives into their eighties and nineties.
Residents keep busy, with social and political groups, hobbies and parties. The community hosts a variety of clubs and resident boards, so even the most mobility-challenged can find a way to participate. As they progress in age, their world narrows geographically like a target, until, like my grandmother, they find themselves living closer to the bulls-eye, and dependent on other, younger residents -- or the local dial-a-bus -- to transport them to the supermarket, the hair salon, the dentist.
A couple days ago, I asked my grandmother how she sees the whole thing. Could she imagine herself picking up her whole life, leaving her community and all her friends, to move into a "retirement complex" where she would live in a much smaller apartment (more of a deluxe hotel room, really, albeit with half- or full-size kitchen)?
She isn't sure. Retirement homes are for old people, she tells me, completely serious. I'm not old.
That sounds strange coming from a woman halfway into her hundredth decade. Unless you know my grandmother.
She lived through the Depression, got a scholarship to college, and graduated with a teaching degree, at a time when few women -- or men, for that matter -- had a chance at higher education. She persevered through the kind of marriage later generations of women would have ditched, and loyally took care of her husband through a serious, drawn-out illness. She was (and remains) an advocate of non-fluoridated water, vegetarian eating, and healthy living, during an era when that kind of lifestyle was commonly derided. When her husband died, she didn't miss a beat, traveling the world while she was young and healthy enough to do so. She purchased her own home, collected art and music to fill it, and continued her travels well into her eighties.
During our conversation, my grandmother described in detail all of her current available human resources, (and which she had called into action two days before her trip, when she leaned down, thought she cracked a rib, and finally agreed for her friend drive her to the emergency room. Only a dislocation, it turns out: You know, something just snapped out of place. This morning I pushed it back in, and now it's fine.
I asked what she thought about the potential benefits of transitioning to this type of living arrangement, and she mentioned her difficulties fixing herself dinner every evening. Breakfast and lunch, you know, they're small meals, I can handle that. But dinner is another story. She still does her own weekly grocery shopping; her friend and neighbor, 82-years-old, drives her every week. But not all of her neighbors are feeling capable any more. Some of my friends, they're getting older. Not old, you know -- only eighty, eighty-five -- but they're starting to feel older, and wonder where to put themselves, what to do with their bodies.
And the drawbacks? For one, the price. Places like these cost about $4000 a month, not including the phone bill. Currently, she pays $250 a month in fees for some utilities and upkeep of the grounds, a few hundred for additional utilities, and about $400 a month for food. She now owns her house and so does not pay a mortgage. My grandmother has savings in the bank and budgets carefully. She allows herself some luxuries (she is a very stylish dresser), and can't help but worry, with good reason, over the financial commitment this move would entail. Her unspoken worry: What will happen if the money runs out before I do?
Another drawback? The feeling of losing her independence, feeling isolated, starting all over in an unfamiliar place. She stated some of these factors out loud while implying others.
Today we joined my grandmother for lunch in one facility, run by and for Jewish people, and located about 20 minutes from my parents' house. The grounds were well groomed, the living units hospitable but small. The day's activities were posted on all the bulletin boards. (This got me hoping these types of place adapt with the times. If not, I'd better learn to play mahjong and Bridge). They have a computer room and offer lessons in e-mail and Websurfing. Residents are served three meals a day in the dining room, but may order room service, or cook for themselves in their apartments. As we approached the dining hall, I noticed tens of walkers parked hodge-podge outside. Inside, the hall was calm as a hundred older people chatted quietly while eating a four-course lunch.
Toward the end of lunch I asked my grandmother what she thought. She said she hasn't decided anything, she'll have to think about it.
In a few minutes, my grandmother will board a plan taking her back to her town, where a social worker will pick her up and drive her home to continue the independent life of a ninety-four-year-old woman. My parents have given her a kind of ultimatum: If you choose not to move to one of the retirement residences we visited this week, that's you're choice, but then you must hire someone to help you around the house.
For my grandmother, the latter option is actually worse of the two. Having help in the house would mean she's old, when in fact, she's only ninety-four.
Keep the balance,
* All of us were exceedingly relieved when my grandmother finally gave up her car, at the age of 85. I tried to identify with the symbolic and physical loss of independence this step would bring her, but having ridden with her over the last decade prior, I was scared to death for her and every driver and pedestrian around her.
(And thanks to Me-ander for a beautiful visual reminder of the limitations of old age).