My 91-year-old Grandmother recently moved to a retirement home. How did she ever tolerate such a situation, you ask? Well, she slipped and fell going out to the mailbox. Luckily she wasn’t hurt, but she was stuck there on the ground for 45 minutes before a neighbor came by to help her up. Not that there weren’t opportunities for assistance before those 45 minutes had passed. A car did drive by, and instead of throwing something in its direction or frantically flailing her arms about over her head, she looked the passenger dead in the eye and waved at them politely, because those car people (not anyone she knew personally) couldn’t be trusted to help her ass up off the ground.
Now, of course, she’s blissfully happy in the home. After years of straight-up depression, and 6 months of being unable to cook for herself because she literally couldn’t handle the pans on her own, she goes to exercise classes, has an extensive circle of friends, and wants to re-learn how to play Mah Jong so she’ll have a competitive edge. I’ve never been happier for another human being in my life, but I have to tell you, it took some time to get there.
My Grandmother grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas and has lived there her entire life. She knows almost everyone in the near 200,000-person city. Everyone. When she goes to church, every Sunday, her pastor mock complains that my Grandmother’s receiving line is longer than hers. It’s true, and her fame throughout Little Rock is extreme. When I was living in DC, someone came into the store I was managing and handed me their ID. When I saw they were from Little Rock, I said, “Oh, my Grandmother is from Little Rock! You probably know her.”
When I told the woman my Grandmother’s name, she said, “Oh! I’ve never met her, but I have heard of her.”
It makes sense. My Grandmother, hands down, is the cutest person in the world. She stands mightily at a whopping 4’11”, including her puffy permed white helmet of hair. She has a thick but proper Southern accent, which she uses to charm anybody who walks into her vicinity, bending them to her tiny will without effort. She has been a dedicated member of her church since birth, made a living through the Great Depression, was promoted to a management level over men at a bank during the 30’s (back when that was unheard of), and participated actively in the Civil Rights movement during the Little Rock Nine episode—on the anti-segregation side of things. She is a pioneer of her era. But she’s also stubborn as a mule, unflinchingly so. I find it best not to cross her. You don’t want that kind of passive-aggressive wrath to come down on you.
So it was with her decision to move to the home. The summer before she fell, I was visiting, not only to see her, but also because she needed some help cleaning some of the things out of her 2 bedroom/2 bath home, which was growing progressively unmanageable for her. We were sitting, having breakfast, and I asked her where she was on moving to the home. At that point, we had been having this conversation for some time, as her old age, lack of transportation, and lack of cooking ability in addition to her complete and utter denial had left her in a dangerous state alone in her home with no one to look after her 24/7. For anyone who’s had stubborn grandparents or parents, you can relate. Babies and grandparents have many of the same needs, as they require constant care and maintenance. But you try looking a grown ass adult who has managed their own affairs for decades right in the eyeball and telling them that they aren’t equipped to live on their own anymore. Also, that you know best. Now try doing it to a woman who changed your diapers and scolded you when you acted a fool as a child.
She sat up rather erectly and looked at me cautiously. “Rhea, I want to go when I’m ready. I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do.” She had been repeating this for months, as if that would make me back off. But clearly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
I took a deep breath, and I leaned in, ready to turn on the tough love. “Grandmother, I’m not trying to rush you, but could you explain to me what you are waiting for… You can’t cook for yourself anymore, you don’t have a car, finding transportation is difficult, the house costs a lot to maintain, and you seem sort of lonely. Wouldn’t moving be a good idea? It seems like a lot of the things you’ve been upset about would be taken care of at the home you’ve described to me. I just want to understand your thinking. ”
She looked at me, pretty steadily, her eyes unwavering as she sized me up. She tapped her filed fingers on the table for a heavy moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Rhea, I just want my independence.”
From what? Looking at her across the table wearing the blue flowered house-dress she had owned since I was old enough to remember, delicately eating her low-sodium Welch’s grape juice, a banana and fiber filled cereal, which had brought her back from the brink of diabetes, she looked totally normal and in control. But then she stood, holding the counters as she went to put the dish in the sink, opening a pillbox loaded with pills that would keep this and that in place. It was a reminder. She was very very old.
When I was growing up, she was one of the more active people I knew, and this was when she was in her 60’s and early 70’s. I spent most of my summers as a young kid in Arkansas, trying to keep up with her as we went from place to place. She was unstoppable.
But as she aged, various things began to fail, as happens when your body gets tired. First, she hurt her knee and couldn’t walk up steps. Then, her esophageal issues flared up, followed by a blood clot that eventually gave her a mini stroke, which she of course survived to the shock and awe of her doctors. Blood clot tryin’ to tell her how to live. Nonsense.
Over the years, as her body deteriorated around her mind, she grew more isolated and less social, for all the shared reasons that the elderly have. Aging puts wear and tear on your body that you’re not ready for. You can’t drive anymore, which severely limits your ability to do things. And then all your friends and family start dying around you. Your mind also starts to function less well than it used to. So you repeat things. You forget where you put things, which makes you more paranoid about theft. You talk about the same things over and over again because you don’t have that many new things to go over, and the past is much more important than it ever was. Nostalgia reigns supreme. This is something every living person on the planet will face should they get to be the age my Grandmother is. It is not an insult, it is not cruel—it is just how it is. And she would tell you the same thing.
However, as her social circle and physical capacity shrunk, my Grandmother grew more into herself. While she had many family members who visited and helped out, for the most part she was on her own, day in day out. Bless her heart the tiny woman was depressed. This resulted in some pretty provocative guilt tripping when I had to get off the phone to conduct my normal affairs and many hours on the phone hearing the same stories about the good old days, but our relationship endured.
So when she called me to tell me about this 45 minutes of sitting under the hot Arkansas sun, it was clear that she had had some time to think, stuck there on the ground—probably furious as a wet cat in a thunderstorm. She pronounced, “Rhea, I have always known when it is time to step down, and I am going to move.” When she made a decision, dammit, she stuck to it. Within two months, she was moved, her items distributed to family, the house put on the market, and bless her heart, she bought all new furniture for the new apartment, saying, “I want to start fresh in my new life.” It was a godsend.
At the time, I was wrapped up in work and was unable to go to Arkansas to help her pack her things. But move she did, and I knew it was time to go visit her in her new environs. I wanted to be supportive, because I knew how hard it was to admit defeat.
I called her, to ask if January would be a good time for me to come and visit. After asking her if there was w-fi in the home so that I could work remotely for a week, we talked about sleeping arrangements. She and I both knew that I couldn’t crash on her couch. She got up pretty regularly at the crack of dawn, and plus, I would be very much in her space in her 1-bedroom apartment as she went about her business.
She politely told me of the housing they had “on-campus” for a reasonable rate. While it was a great offer, I had an Aunt who lived in the Heights, which is pretty much the Ritz-iest neighborhood in Arkansas, other than the country club. And free, as well as relaxing, is significantly better than living in a home for a week, courteous staff and heart-healthy meals not withstanding.
“Grandmother, I think that I will probably stay with Aunt Jamie during the time that I’m there…”
“No, you can’t do that! I know you think I’m crazy, but there is a lot of crime in Little Rock right now.”
I paused, knowing that over the years she had gotten substantially more afraid of not only theft, but of the nighttime hours, which was anytime after her 8:00pm bedtime, approximately 6 hours before I got tired. When she still had her house my brother Kurt and I would visit, periodically needing to escape her crushing yet sweet attention, as well as the consistent offers for us to take her things, because when she was dead and gone she wouldn’t need them. One night when we had gone for much-needed margaritas, she called us, panicked at 6:30pm, saying that we simply must get home soon as possible because it was getting dark. Twilight wasn’t even a thought in the sky. Her paranoia was not new news to me, but having survived Cairo and New York City on my own, I thought I could handle Little Rock, Arkansas with relative ease, especially within the walls of a rented car.
“Grandmother, I think that I will be alright in the 30-minute car ride to the Heights, I…”
And she cut me off, practically crying out, “No, Rhea, you don’t understand! They’ll ram your car so they can steal your things! You don’t know what they’re doing here right now!”
I thought of this scenario, pulling away from a stop sign only to have a car filled with big burly men with guns slam into my front fender, leap out, and run around to the driver’s seat to demand the keys and my purse, politely leaving me with my chap stick and jacket, in case I got cold. I moved on from the subject, saying that we would see, and asked her to tell me more about her new friends.
She lit up, and was telling me all about her new friends, the wonderful staff, and the wonders of living “on-campus.” And then she let a story slip that defined my Grandmother to me.
When I was living at our first house with the boys (my Dad and Uncle) and Grandfather, my mother had to move in with us so we could support her. She lived in the basement and everything was fine. At the time, I was volunteering at the home, because my church helped to found the retirement community. I was spending so much time there, so I offered to Mother that she come with me. She looked at me, utterly offended, and said, “You think that if you show it to me, I’ll want to move in, huh? You can’t get rid of me that easy.” I of course paused, and said, “Whatever you want, Mother. I have to leave in a few minutes, so it’s up to you.” So I went about my business, and got ready to go. When Grandfather and I got to the carport, there she was, all dressed and standing by the car, waiting. I knew better than to say anything, so we all got into the car and went. The next day she applied for a room and was out of our house within a week.
I laughed uproariously. My Grandmother, ignoring the obvious comparison, carried on with her story.
I was still volunteering there quite a bit, because I liked it, so I would visit with her when I went to volunteer. I also called her every day, to check in on her, because that was what we did. One day, I was visiting with her, and after a time, she sat up in her chair, and in an exasperated tone said to me, “I know that you want to check in with me, but I can’t have you calling me every day. And if you think I’m going to sit with you and visit every day, I cannot. I have things to do, and me and my friends are busy with activities!” I said, “Yes, Mother.” So we switched to visiting every few days so I could respect her privacy.
I was dumbfounded. It was hilarious. But she carried on…
You know, my Mother always preferred to do her own laundry. Every Friday, she would pack up her laundry and go to the laundry room to do her washing. One day, she was mid-way through her washing, and she felt a pain in her chest. So, she finished everything up, went back to her room, put all her things away, and then called me to inform me that she would be going to the hospital. Then she called 911 for an ambulance. I met her at the hospital, and she died a few weeks later. Turns out, she had had a mild heart attack. But she was fit to be tied if she wasn’t going to finish her washing.
I was laughing so hard that tears came to my eyes. It was a ludicrous tale, but it settled things in my mind. My Grandmother had learned to be the way she was from the best, and she was fit to be tied if it would be another way.
She is settled now, which settles me, but it makes me view my old age in a very different light. I used to be afraid, based on her isolation, that eventually the time would come where I would be just friggin miserable. But I know, based on this demonstrated pattern, that I will try to address it head on, and move to the home at a reasonable age so I can play canasta, get taken to my myriad of doctor’s appointments, and so on and so forth until the day when I too have a heart attack in the laundry room.