Sunday, November 27, 2011

Tenacious G Plays the Good Samaritan

One reality of having an elderly parent is that you end up sitting in the emergency room from time to time. For instance, a few years ago, my mother decided to leap onto her single bed and landed on the opposite-side floor. This resulted in a broken toe—and a six-hour wait in the emergency room with my mother profusely complaining about the bad service. In a preventive measure, I purchased a double bed for her so that the next time she leapt, she would not overshoot and break something else.

Last night, my mother’s assisted living facility called to say that she had hit her head while trying to help another resident with a motorized wheelchair off an elevator. Apparently, her friend hit the accelerator at the wrong time and sent her flying against the wall. File that one under Geriatric Hijinks.

Tenacious G's assisted living crib: Victoria Mews.
“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But... the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”—Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., not anticipating Tenacious G.

The phone rang around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday night. The Victoria Mews nurse asked that I ferry Mom to the local hospital to ensure the lump on her head was not serious. Bear in mind, that Saturday night is typically the time of week when you are competing with the aftermath of drunk driving, bar fights and whatever else sends people to the hospital during their leisure pursuits.

Little did the nurse appreciate just how hard my mother’s skull truly is. I drove out there and found my mother sitting in the nurse’s office with an icepack on her head, looking like a wayward student in the principal’s office.

“This is nonsense,” she protested. Just the same, the emergency room visit was necessary, so we hopped into my car and drove to the hospital. The nurse there had a great sense of humor. I handed her the stack of papers the facility had given me and she had all the documentation she needed. She ushered us into a curtained stall to await the doctor. Mom occupied a gurney that allowed her to sit up. I had packed a bunch of holiday catalogs for her to read so she wouldn’t complain loudly about the service.

“Love makes the world go round and so does a bump in the head.”—Bill Ekstrand

Not a patient: Tenacious G's friend is a Halloween mummy.
A nice doctor came in to ask her what happened. He laughed and encouraged her to continue helping her fellow residents, despite the scolding she had received from her assisted living nurses. He felt a CAT scan was in order, so she was wheeled out for that. An hour later, she received a clean bill of health and the admiration of the staff on her 85-year-old, tough-as-nails constitution. I told the nurse that I expected that some day she would be taking care of me.

We got back into my car and she immediately assumed the captaincy of the vehicle, directing my driving, from how to back out of the parking space to the proper position my hands should assume on the steering wheel. There was a lot of “Watch out!” and “Look both ways!” that was reminiscent of my younger days.

When we got back to her facility, I walked her up to the nurse’s office to share the discharge papers. “I figured there was nothing wrong with her,” the nurse admitted, “But we had to check it out and make sure.” I agreed.

Mom sped off in her unsteady gate toward her room, grumbling about what nonsense it had all been and such a waste of time. “See you tomorrow!” I said to her back as she trundled off. It was time to return home for a very late dinner.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Aging With My Pedal to the Metal

I've spent most of my life not giving much thought to old age. When I was young it seemed irrelevant, and when I was middle-aged I was too busy. Now that the kids are grown and I have time to reflect, I see old age as a car speeding toward a precipice. Someday, I will go over the edge and plunge to my doom, but until then I'm hoping I can continue to keep my foot pressed down to the floor on the accelerator.

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” — Kurt Vonnegut

My earliest memories of old people involve living a block away from the Firemen's Home in Boonton, New Jersey. Firemen who had no place to live when they got old stayed there. The elderly firemen used to stroll up and down our street for exercise and fresh air. They walked very slowly and smiled at us kids as we ran up and down the street playing noisily. We said hi to them; they said hi back. It never occurred to me to try to talk to them. They were odd-looking creatures—and after all, they were strangers.

Great Aunt Allie in the nursing home circa the 1960s.
I also spent a good part of my childhood visiting nursing homes to call on my grandmother's sister, Aunt Allie. These homes were smelly and filled with people who looked sad or scared. I have images from my childhood of the elderly staring into space as if they had been deserted on a street corner. I suppose, in a sense, they had.

What I didn't appreciate when I was a child was that while the elderly look old, inside they feel the same as anyone else. My 85-year-old mother tells me that sometimes when she looks in the mirror, she's surprised to see someone old staring back. "I feel the same way I did when I was 18," she says.

“It takes a long time to become young.”—Pablo Picasso

We seem to be living in a culture that de-valuates old age. People are always trying to look younger and erase wrinkles. Ironically, some cultures celebrate those wrinkles. According to Chinese face reading, every wrinkle on your face represents a lesson learned. To erase wrinkles is to erase the wisdom that's been gained. Nice thought. I'm tired of seeing commercials on how to erase my aging, as if it were a disease. I'm getting old. Deal with it. If my appearance is too hideous, then avert your eyes.

Cultures around the world have diverse ways of viewing old age, according to, Pulitzer prize-winning author Professor Jared Diamond and a few other sources:
Tenacious G (Grandma) feeling as young as ever.
  • American Indians: They regard their elderly as knowledgeable and their older women as powerful. The grandmother is the heart of the family, and as she ages, the family cares for her in return for her years of devotion.
  • Japan: Age is synonymous with wisdom and authority. Older people are the family advisers. The basic unit of Japanese society is the family, and the welfare of the family as a whole is placed above individual members. Elders are the nucleus around which families are built. They are seen as wise, respected, and most importantly, contributing members of society. Children take care of their parents long into their advanced years and consider it an honor.
  • East Asia: Cultures steeped in a Confucian tradition place a high value on filial piety, obedience and respect. It is considered utterly despicable not to take care of your elderly parents.
  • India: The elderly hold authority, with the right to control the wealth of the family. Matriarchs often run the household. As a sign of respect, Indians have a custom of touching the feet of an older person when they meet. They bow down their heads in front of the elderly as a sign of offering themselves as a vessel of service for the older individual.
  • Latin America: The elderly are highly regarded because of their wisdom and inner strength. They are shown a high degree of respect and are cared for by the younger generation when they are no longer able to take care of themselves. This is usually done in the home as opposed to in a facility. Taking care of their elderly is a matter of honor and pride.
  • Germany: They see dependence as a very negative quality and invest a lot of time and energy to keep themselves young and healthy. Some studies suggest that Americans consider themselves old at a much younger age than Germans and most of their European counterparts.
  • Traditional nomadic tribes: They often abandon their elderly during their travel out of necessity. The healthy and young cannot carry the old and infirm on their backs—along with children, weapons and necessities—through perilous territory. 
  • Paraguay’s Aché Indians: They assign certain young men the task of killing old people with an ax or spear, or burying them alive. They often experience famine so food can be scarce. 
Old age ain't no box of chocolates!
“Old age is an excellent time for outrage. My goal is to say or do at least one outrageous thing every week.” —Louis Kronenberger

So there are cultures that revere the elderly and consider caring for them an honor; cultures like the United States that consider the elderly unproductive and senile, and shove them away in nursing homes; and cultures that are too poor in food and resources to keep their elderly alive. I guess that puts the future American elderly like me in the mediocre middle. We aren't revered or respected, but we're not being whacked by a family member either.

My ambition at this point is to be one of those crazy old ladies who wears a red hat, protests for social justice as a member of the Raging Grannies, and keeps a small posse of cats for company. Like most people, I hope to live life to the fullest until I go over the cliff. In the meantime, I intend to keep my foot firmly pressed on the accelerator—and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Queen for a Day

A woman savors the glory of being crowned Queen for a Day.
When I was a young child, there was a television show called Queen for a Day. Clutching my sippie cup, I would watch as housewives in horn-rimmed glasses and aprons competed like nobody's business to be crowned Queen for a Day so they could win new kitchen appliances. They competed by telling the most heart-rending tale of woe about their lives that they could muster. The most pathetic storyteller would win. It always ended with a crying matron being crowned, robed and handed a bouquet of roses—the women off to the side trying not to look too bitter. I guess you could call this the precursor to reality television. Needless to say, this show would probably be a tad politically incorrect these days. But my mother's generation enjoyed watching it. We, after all, are a nation of competitors, whether housewives, business people or athletes.

Then, there's another form of competition....

Nothing says Halloween like a freak blizzard.
My mother lives in an assisted living facility. Every year they have a Halloween party where the residents—ages 80 to 100-plus—compete with the ferocity of the Olympics to win prizes for the best costumes. This year, my mother chose to be Cleopatra. We bought a size large sequenced gown along with a very impressive black wig, cut with the distinctive Cleopatra bangs. Even at 85, Mom is still a party girl at heart and knows how to have a good time.

I took the day off from work so I could help her dress for the event, and due to an unseasonal blizzard a few days before, which knocked out electricity where my husband works, he came along as well. I had been too busy that day to dress in costume, but Steve donned his batman outfit, figuring he could blend in with the residents. They were quite pleased to see a "young man" come dressed in costume. He posed for several pictures with his bat wings outstretched, enjoying the attention.

Tenacious G rules the Nile at Victoria Mews assisted living.
Mom had actually gotten most of her costume on by the time we had arrived. She just needed help with the velcro in the back. Also, I tucked back some wisps of telltale gray hair that were trying to assert themselves out from under her black wig.

The festivities began with the residents walking or riding their motorized wheelchairs along the hallways to show off their Halloween personas. They ranged from a pirate brandishing his sword as he trundled along in his wheelchair to a hippie grandma on a walker donning long blond hair and psychedelic clothing. Then everyone sat in an upstairs meeting room for hot cider, crudites and candy.

An elderly gentlemen dressed in bright red long underwear offered live music with songs he belted out on his saxophone.  He played "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to a green witch and a number of classic tunes from the 1940s.

Free, live sax from an old Italian man.
The recreational director was snapping photos of everyone. When she was done, she projected them on a large screen so everyone could see themselves and their fellow residents on the Big Screen. I also took a few choice photos, which I share with you here.

Pat, owner of VM, told dirty jokes, poodle in hand.
The judges walked around the room thoughtfully reviewing this year's entries. Finally, it was time to announce the winners. A green witch in a motorized wheelchair won for the scariest costume. Her daughter had come earlier in the day to dress her and paint her face green with dark circles under the eyes. A woman wearing a mask of an old man with a cigar in his mouth won for the funniest costume. And finally—and I saw my mother, lips pursed, waiting expectantly with hopes of glory—the most original costume was awarded to the resident who had dressed like Cleopatra. Mom jumped up and grasped a $5 gift certificate to the facility's on-site general store.

Then the owner of Victoria Mews—a senior citizen himself—began telling dirty jokes that surprised even Steve and me. None of the grandmothers or grandfathers celebrating the day seemed to mind. Some of them looked like they might be dozing off anyway.

Mom clutched her certificate, satisfied, that this year she had captured the prize for her costume. Cleopatra had achieved the status of Queen for a Day.