Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Loneliness of the Very Old

Apropos my posting a while back re: my elderly neighbor and her dog, suddenly separated and each whisked off to a strange new place:
It's only been a few weeks but boredom, it seems, had set in from the very first day.
My first impression of Mado's new digs was favorable. Compared to two other 'old age homes' I had visited in the past, one in Vermont and one in North Carolina, this one was hands down, the nicest. It's clean, modern, and attractively furnished. The 26 men and women who live there are given excellent care, their privacy and wishes are respected, the food is good, and every effort is made to make them feel welcome and at home. And yet ...

They're bored.
They're lonely.
They miss their homes and their families and and their pets.

Mado frequently forgets which room she's been assigned to. They all wear a key on a colored ribbon around their necks in case they lock themselves out of their rooms by mistake. The active ones wander the halls, go up and down on the elevator, or pop into each others' rooms to chat. They shuffle down to the dining room to play cards or read a newspaper and have coffee, or just to sit at the table and wait for supper in two hours' time. They go out on the little sun porch to take the air. Their less active companions sit embedded in large comfortable chairs in front of their TV, or asleep in the lounge or parked in the hallway near the door where they can see who comes in to visit.

Who gets on and off the elevator is a matter of great curiosity. When they pass each others' door they nod and say Bonjour or "Are you coming down to supper?" or they just wave as they slide on by. Yesterday when I knocked on Mado's door, I heard animated chatter coming from inside: a good sign. It meant she had company, she was socializing a bit more. Two other female residents are there with her, one sitting on her bed, the other in her big chair. They're talking and laughing like old friends. I am invited to sit in the walker-chair with wheels, which is surprisingly versatile.

"I was born in Grand-Mere", the woman in the big chair tells me, for the fifth time in 8 minutes. "Do you know Grand-Mere? Have you ever been there?" A lively discussion then ensues in which each recounts various deaths (of their parents, of a husband, a brother, etc.), ordinarily a rather morbid subject but it's more along the lines of telling an interesting story. The Grand- Mere woman, who'd lost her first and only child during childbirth, asks me, smiling, "Would you like for me to be your mother?" Sure, I say. Why not. They all seem, in a sense, like my little mothers.

They comment on my struggling French, saying that my grammar has improved, that they completely understand me, which is ironic because when they begin all talking together very fast, I do not understand everything that they are saying. Everyone is in such a good mood, I leave with the feeling that perhaps Mado has now adjusted to her new surroundings--only to return later in the afternoon to find her alone in her chair, head in her hands, sobbing.

"How is our house?" she asks me (it's ceased being chez moi ( "my" house); now it's chez NOUS ("our" house), though I've never lived there). "How is Pom-Pom?" she inquires. "Did I get any mail? Can you check for me? Is the house okay?" And when she thinks of her little dog again, the tears begin anew. "I miss Pom-Pom!" I don't know what to say.

I assure her that the house is okay, I pass by there every day; someone has cut the grass, no one has broken in, everything is fine, don't worry. Pom-Pom is fine. He likes his new place, he's eating well, he has a big yard to run around in. She wants me to bring him to see her but of course that's not allowed, and it would only make things worse. She would hug and hold him and it would come time for him to go and he'd be wrested from her embrace and taken away and that would break both their hearts, and mine as well.

I compliment her on her nice room. It is--very nice. She has a lovely private bathroom, a large room with a brand-new single bed, bureau, TV, reclining chair, small table. Pictures of her family, of whom she says she is the last one, line the shelf. My favorite is the one of her when she was in her early twenties, she's resting her chin on her folded arms, looking into the distance, with these huge, inquisitive brown eyes. There's an impish air about her, as if a mini-rebellion is about to break forth, a sense of adventure that continues to manifest in her spirit (when you're old, they call this being "feisty"). Until two weeks ago it was still there. I see little evidence of it today. One of her legs is hideously swollen and she walks with difficulty. A resident who has been there two years already leans over and whispers to me "C'est dur ici", it is HARD here. It is boring. It is lonely.

They all wave or say hello now when I come to visit Mado. And laugh at me because I will not take the elevator down; I take the stairs instead. How silly to be afraid of a tiny little elevator that only goes up ONE floor, at the speed of a crippled turtle at that. Having gotten stuck in one three times, I've inadvertently programmed myself into avoidance mode, which is completely irrational but there it is.

Anyway, next week is Mado's birthday. She will be 85. Or is it 86? I don't remember. How big a cake would it take to feed 26 residents? She says, No, no, please, don't make a big thing of it, but when I ask if she prefers chocolate or vanilla cake, she licks her lips and grins at the mention of chocolate. So chocolate it will be. She requested that I bring a calender next time, so she can tell what day it is, and a piece of scotch tape to affix it to the wall, as they don't allow them to put nails in. "What is my room number again?"

I can't imagine having to one day relinquish my independence, to leave all my books and things and go live in a little room, to have to wear a key round my neck all the time, to have to eat supper at 4:30 in the afternoon [!], to have to have help getting dressed or to comb my hair. I'm not sure I would be bored though. I say that now. I mean, I hear 20 year olds proclaim with a loud, heavy sigh, how utterly BORED they are and I cannot understand it. I need 40 or 50 more years, at LEAST!! There is so much to still discover, and learn; to read, and hear, and see, and DO. Just when I finally get to be fluent in French, ha ha, that's when the universe will step in to announce, "Time's up, kid." But perhaps by then my mind will have gone and I won't notice. I'll be repeating, five times in the same conversation, "I was born in such and such a place. Do you know it? Have you ever visited it?" like the Grand-Mere lady.

It is so sad, and I can do nothing about Mado's boredom. A few short visits a week are not enough to dispell the gnawing loneliness. It's not fair. There are people you want to help but can't. They have illnesses for which there is no cure, troubles that you cannot wish away--and like Mado, long, sleepless nights staring into the darkness trying to remember what it was like to be young, and happy, and free. You can't give that back to them with just soothing words.

Does one ever adjust to these great upheavals where EVERYTHING changes in the bat of an eye? One day you're home, doing what you always do; the next, you're in a strange empty room, waiting to die. If only, like the keys we carry to our "things", we could unlock the storehouse of attitudes and choose one that would bring us back again, make us happy and at peace again.

If only it were that simple.


*Photo by Chalmers Butterfield. [This is not Mado. This is Every Lonely Older Person.]

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