Monday, September 20, 2010

Golden Years

I took a few days off work last week to drive to north Georgia to visit my Mom.

Mom lives almost at the very end of a long hallway, and next door to her is an empty apartment.  A few years ago, The Barefoot Lady lived there, infamous in our family for using the retirement home's laundry room barefoot (we all agreed that was a little gross).  She was a larger lady, she was boisterous and friendly, and she had a big family that were always coming to visit her.  When her sons figured out that Dad was a cigar smoker, they brought him some actual illegal Cuban cigars.  Or so they said, anyway.  Dad loved sitting on his balcony, overlooking the woods, and smoking them while reading large print western novels (or, after his eyesight faded, listening to western audio books); genuine Cuban or not, they were good cigars, he said.  They were all very kind to Mom after Dad passed away.  Late last year The Barefoot Lady went into the hospital, and never came back.  The apartment has been empty since then.

On the other side of Mom's apartment, at the very end of the hallway by the big window that lets in the afternoon sun, is The Whistler.  He and his wife had been married for many decades when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and they moved into the retirement home soon after.  She began to get confused, and would wander away.  Sometimes he'd have trouble getting her to follow him to the dining room for meals, and sometime's she'd get lost.  He discovered that she responded to his whistling, she liked to hear him whistle little tunes, so he started whistling all the time.  He'd whistle down the hall, and she'd stay right with him, and he'd whistle when searching for her if she was missing, and she'd come looking for the whistle and he'd find her.  After a couple of years her condition worsened, and she moved into a nursing home.  The Whistler stayed in his apartment at the retirement home, and he still whistles when he walks down the hallway.  Mom says she doesn't know if he is starting to get a bit senile himself, or if possibly he just got so used to doing it he doesn't even notice it anymore.

This retirement home does not have any medical facilities, so technically the people who live there are expected to be able to take care of themselves (although some have home health nurses come in to assist them, especially during an illness).  However, with the economic decline there are more and more empty apartments, and more and more new people moving in with serious problems.

My sweet little mother is just exactly the type that people to go when they are looking for help; she's friendly but soft-spoken, observant and sympathetic, and watches out for her fellow residents to see if anyone does need help.  Several times she's had to put her foot down, when people ask her to help them physically do something they can't do, because she can't do it either - she's 89, walks with a walker, and can't hear too well.

Last year a lady positively attached herself to Mom, and there was nothing, short of being genuinely rude, that Mom could do about it.  This lady waited outside Mom's apartment for every meal, so they could walk to the dining room together and sit together.  She was physically fairly okay, she could hear and see and walk, but she had some sort of dementia.  When the time came to order her meal, she'd pull out a little piece of paper she'd written her reminder on: "Peanut butter and jelly sandwich".  And she'd have that for every meal.  Sometimes she'd forget to look at her paper, and Mom would be there to gently remind her.  She was very nice and very cheerful, and smiled a lot, and seemed happy.  Mom said that honestly, in some ways she was quite pleasant to be around.  A lot of the old people who live there are pretty cranky, Mom says.

The lady remembered Mom, and she seemed to remember me, a little bit.  She remembered her whole family, and could recite their names and where they all lived (and she had a big family, many of whom came to visit her quite frequently).  She had played piano in church her whole life, and could no longer remember how to read music, but if someone reminded her of the title of a hymn, she could play it perfectly.  She was utterly mystified by Christmas, though, asking Mom, slightly alarmed, why the big man coming through the dining room was dressed in that strange way, with a big red suit, and why was he giving presents to everyone?

Earlier this year she developed some sort of illness -- Mom spoke to her daughter, but never did really get an answer on what was happening -- and she moved out of the retirement home to live with family.

Some of the people who live there are so active and healthy, you have to wonder why they are there.  They drive cars, and participate in all the activities, and don't seem to need any help with anything.  One such woman is the nice lady who came and sat with Mom, in her apartment, during the morning of Dad's funeral.  Mom showed her pictures of Dad, and told her about when they got married and what their life had been like, and the woman stayed with Mom all morning listening and keeping mom company.

I know it sounds weird to say that I enjoy staying in the guest room there, and having meals in the dining room with Mom's friends, and hanging out with everyone, but I really do.  Obviously I love seeing my mother and being able to spend time with her, but I kind of enjoy the retirement home, too.