Old Age - Then and Now
A long time ago, when I was just a teen, a girlfriend who already volunteered at a local nursing home, invited me to volunteer. For six months or so, twice a week, Sue, dressed in a cute Candy Striper outfit, pushed around the hospitality cart. Her job, which cast her in an angelic light, was bringing newspapers, magazines, and dog-eared romance novels to the home’s more-together residents, the ones who were alert and interested enough in life to want to read books and magazines.
When I asked Sue what I’d be doing, she assured me it would be something nice, like arranging flowers or fluffing pillows or tucking a lap rug around a grateful old person’s knobby knees. Imagine my dismay when the aide assigned to volunteers told me I’d be assisting a staff member feeding residents who were unable to feed themselves or get to the dining room and who were fed in their rooms instead.
I am ashamed to report after all these years that I lasted only three weeks before I quit without notice. It wasn’t that I didn’t quickly master the art of spooning mush into slack, sometimes toothless, mouths. In fact I was so good at the job that the aide who was paid decided she didn’t need to do it. I spooned in food. I wiped chins. I was patient. I tried, whenever possible, to engage with the person. About my new auxiliary nursing skill, I experienced a sense of pride. But the entire three weeks I volunteered, I worked much harder at suppressing my repulsion and my fear. I never stopped thinking I never wanted to be that old, that feeble or feeble minded, that dependent.
Fast forward 47 years. I make a new friend whose mother is 96. Her mom lives at home in the apartment she’s lived in for decades. Her mother is frail but has all her marbles and until fairly recently was able to do a little grocery shopping. Then she took a bad fall necessitating surgery. Her daughter, for the duration of her mother’s recovery, decided to move in.
I met my new friend out walking. In the evenings, people take a lot of walks around here. While we walked, she talked. She told me there was no end in sight when she could move back to her own house and her husband from whom she was estranged. She said her previously tough mother had become quite infantile and required a lot more care. Her mother could still be convinced to be driven to the senior center where she was given a hot lunch, but had become clingy and needy, pleading with her daughter not to leave. Even these hour or two walks my friend took for exercise and to relieve her own stress were too much for her mom, who called her on her cell two or three times during each walk, asking when she’d return.