It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Imagine the Alternatives

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).


ProfK said...

When she was younger my mother told us that she didn't care what other problems the Ribboneh shel Olam would send her as long as her mind remained intact. Now, many years later, and in her upper 80s, she b"h has that intact mind and a lot of aches and pains and limitations to what she can do on her own and it has come as a shock to her that she doesn't like the physical limitations one bit. She is still very active but it comes at a physical cost.

We are lucky that my mother's apartment is only a few blocks from my sister's house and that there are many of her grandchildren living in the neighborhood as well so help is available if needed. I can really feel for your grandmother and for your parents because this role reversal is not easy for any of the parties involved.

One of my friends envies me no end for having this problem to deal with. She would give anything to still have her mother alive. When looked at from that perspective it makes all the problems a little bit smaller and more manageable.

Anonymous said...

A very touching piece of writing.

A Living Nadneyda said...

My grandmother's mind is also 100% intact, with an amazing memory to boot. She keeps track of the whole extended family's comings and goings with a level of accuracy that I envy.

I agree with your friend; I have many friends who have lost their parents, some to death, some to insanity, i.e. their parents are still alive but not a pleasant part of their lives in any respect.

I think my grandmother will continue to think of herself as "not old" for the rest of her life. If there is one thing I have learned from her, it is that "old" is also a mindset and not necessarily contingent on other factors.

This is just one more reason I pray that she does not have to spend any length of time feeling very ill, infirm, in pain, or any other ailment of the "old."

ProfK, Thanks for sharing your story.
ID, thanks for your feedback.


muse said...

Wonderful post, and thanks for the link.
One thing I've seen is that it's best to move out of "the house" when one still functions well, when it's "too early." Once it's hard to function, it's even harder to move.
Not easy...

Lady-Light said...

My mother died at age 54 of leukemia before my grandmother (her mother) did. My father died 6 years later, in 1975.
I am so happy for you that you have the zchut to have a relatively healthy, sharp-as-a-tack living grandmother. May she live ad me'ah ve-esrim shanah, as healthy and sharp as she is now.
It was very moving reading your post.

therapydoc said...

What a beautiful, well-written post. This is exactly what's been obsessing me for years now, how old is old? And I think when the body starts aging but the mind is still sharp as a tac, the answer maybe never.

A Living Nadneyda said...

M - There's a lot of truth in that, and from listening to my grandmother, it sounds like the hardest part is to decide to make the move before actually feeling the need. I have the feeling she will resist the decision until she herself feels there is no choice.

LL - I'm so sorry you lost your parents at such young ages. I'm glad you now have the comfort of the next generations. Very nice to meet you -- I was also born Year of the Rat.

ENT - I think I agree. There is no "old age" until we decide... unfortunately, sometimes the body steps in and decides for us. At the moment, having witnessed far too many young deaths, I still believe old age is better than the alternative, but not under every circumstance.