My friends and I are in our late sixties or early seventies. We’ve been through life’s passages together. Just as we were all thinking about sex and dating at the same time, getting married at the same time, having children at the same time, we are now thinking about life between seventy and eighty at the same time.
We like to think that we are individuals with our own unique problems, concerns, life crises, happiness but, the truth is so many of life’s major events are predictable passages.
When I was in my late forties and went to my doctor to complain about my eyesight bothering me (I already wore glasses) and I asked him what was wrong, he laughed and said, “Middle age.” The solution was progressive lenses. When many years later, I had to wear a hearing aid, I was embarrassed until I noticed that many of my contemporaries were wearing hearing aids. We have, on the whole gone through the teenage angst of our children together, their getting married, their producing grandchildren for us, together. We mostly retired within a few years of each other.
A conversation with a long-time (I eschew the world “old”) friend today turned to a new  topic, relocating and downsizing. They go together. In our middle years when we were becoming empty nesters, our children moved far and wide. The days of three generations of a family living in the same small town are long gone. Opportunities are nearly always elsewhere. There aren’t many jobs for people with university educations, particularly graduate degrees, in a small town. He result is that our children and our grandkids are spread from Fredericton to Victoria, down to Texas, across to Australia and in places many of us had never heard of until we had family there.
Now, though, that our “kids” are pushing fifty and have settled down, and are, themselves, becoming empty nesters, more and more of my contemporaries are considering moving closer to their kids. That’s particularly true if divorce or death has left them alone. Part of that is simply being practical. As you grow older, you have more medical problems. Many hospital tests require that someone take you to the hospital, then pick you up because you’ve had a sedative and are legally impaired for twenty-four hours. The importance of having someone willing to do that starts to loom large.
In some cases, that move is occasioned by a sense that a person wants to live somewhere where they don’t need a car. They want to be a bus or taxi ride or in walking distance from grocery stores, dentists, dry cleaners, banks, post offices, restaurants. At one time driving an hour into a city to shop or go to a play seemed like nothing.  Part of growing older is recognizing that driving an hour into the city is more tiring than fun. There also are warnings about what could happen as friends start to have problems with their night vision or macular degeneration or their balance. A condo in an area where there are shops and services starts to look pretty good.
More, though, than moving, is the question of downsizing. It seems to be on nearly everyone’s mind. We’ve all gone through the phase of having a growing family, needing more space, a bigger house, more furniture, a rec room, a yard.  Now, often reduced to being alone, a big house feels empty, lonely, more  work than it is worth.
I just recently downsized. I went from a large, rambling heritage home with innumerable rooms, a double lot with what seemed endless flower gardens plus a kitchen garden for vegetables, a carriage shed with an addition where the Chinese cook lived in the 1920s. The trouble is that when you find yourself alone, those innumerable rooms are inclined to echo. With my parents no longer coming to stay for the winters, with my sister-in-law having bought her own home here, with retiring and not having as many dinner parties or receptions, the house was too big. The decision was hard because I loved that house. It was the house I’d always dreamt of owning.
I hated to give up my poppy plants that I’d cultivated and transplanted until there was a hedge of them. Six feet tall, with massive white blooms. The wisteria that wrapped around the bird bath. My nephew planted it for me. The grape vines that grew along the stone wall. I planted those.
I replaced it with a bungalow. No yard to speak of. Real estate agents call it easy care. I resent it the term. Friends say I could have hired a gardener and had everything done for me. They miss the point. It’s not just the having. It’s the doing. It’s the satisfaction of digging that soil, of choosing those plants, of planting those shrubs and flowers.
What I left behind weren’t just the living room fireplace, the study where I could shelve all my books. What I left behind were memories. Here is the living room where the whole family gathered to open Christmas presents. Here is the dining room where we celebrated birthdays and holidays, where we started with one table and ended up with three end to end to accommodate a growing family plus friends.
Here is the yard where I hid Easter eggs for the annual Easter egg hunt. Under that camelia, in the crook of that lilac branch.
Downsizing forces us to make decisions. It’s a simple calculation. A condo half the size of the house means half our belongings have to go. A condo a quarter size means three quarters of our belongings have to be shed. Some decisions are easy. All that stuff that has accumulated in the basement. When you ask yourself, what was I keeping that for, the decision is easy. But then, there are the hard decisions.  Some things have to be let go even if we love them. It’s not the monetary value that we grieve. It’s the rocking chair our children and then our grandchildren used. It’s the leather couch that is too big for an apartment. It’s the carpets we chose so carefully but aren’t needed when there is wall-to-wall.
Then there are the items that we thought were valuable. We’re always shocked by what we are offered because we know what we paid for these items. Stamp collections often sell for one tenth of their retail value. Art, unless we’re lucky, goes for a quarter of its insurance value—if that. The buyers don’t pay for hopes or dreams or memories of holding hands looking at a painting that would be perfect for the living room and trying to decide if we could afford it. And then there are the items no one wants. They go to the thrift store or the garbage dump. Precious to us, they are precious to no one else.
It’s a good thing that when we are young and accumulating, buying a house, filling it up with all the things we desire, that we don’t think or even know about downsizing.  It would take away the joy of having earned something, the joy of having something that we want, whether it’s a patio set or a hot tub. Each stage of life has its necessary events.
Don’t get me wrong. I like my new bungalow. That doesn’t keep me from grieving my heritage home, the big yard, the flower gardens but probably what I grieve the most is not having the energy to make use of them. I used to run behind the lawn mower for exercise. Up a slope. I’m not able to do that anymore. I was plodding and when I finished, I needed to have a nap.
The lesson of downsizing , I guess,  is to store up not worldly goods but good memories for when that day comes, it will be memories that you can take with you and that will warm you and comfort you. Memories don’t take up any space. They fit into a bungalow or a condo or, eventually, if we live long enough, in a single room in a nursing home.

Alzheimer’s and Kindness

Today, when I went to visit the nursing home where both my parents currently live, I discovered my mother in the doorway of her bathroom entangled in her nightgown. She was naked from the waist up and unable to find the appropriate holes for her head and arms.

“Help me,” she said but I don’t think she had any idea she was speaking to her son.

I’m not used to idea of finding my mother half-naked and confused, of having to help her with this simplest of tasks. Normally a nurse would magically appear to take over but today the hall is empty. I managed to straighten out the nightgown, to get her arms and head into the right places.

“Take off my pants,” she said and went and sat on the edge of her bed. I pulled of her shoes and slacks and pulled down her nightgown.

My father had appeared from his room. “This is crazy,” he said and turned and left. There are no double rooms so my parents, although t hey are married sixty-eight years, are living separately. Few couples come here. Nearly all the residents are women, widows who sit in lines close to the exit, wearing bracelets that lock the doors automatically if they try to leave.

My mother tried to pull back her blanket but couldn’t for along with Alzheimer’s she has macular degeneration and, therefore, only peripheral vision. I pulled back the blanket, helped her into bed where she curled up into a fetal position. I covered her and, although it was only three thirty in the afternoon, wished her good night.

This, for the young readers who believe no such fate could come their way, was a woman who was a credit union manager for twenty-two years, who sold insurance, who regularly braved northern winter roads to bring supplies to my father at his commercial fish camp.

My mother loves this nursing home, or loved it, when she was still aware. She wanted to come here and quickly joined in the activities. She looked forward to volunteering for folding face cloths. She enjoyed Friday night happy hours, the church services, the mind games, the physical exercises, the company of other women.

My father, on the other hand, hates it here. He came unwillingly, driven in by his inability to live alone or with anyone else. Before he came here his paranoid dementia brought him to my home half a continent away in Victoria, then after he became convinced that I had stolen his morphine pills, his money, was trying to poison him, had listening devices in all the walls, his paranoia drove him away. Unable to live on his own, he raged against having to move into a care facility. He refuses to participate. He goes into rants over the food. He particularly despises pasta.

He has good days and bad days. On the good days I have my father back, not the charming, amusing man most people, including me, remember but, at least a person who is rational and can talk knowledgeably about his great passion, the penny stock market. Most of the time he is angry. The morphine he has to take to control the pain from a shattered vertebra increases the paranoia but he can’t get by without it. It’s a fine balance. Enough drugs to control the pain but not too much that would mean he sleeps all the time.

There is a resident here who just celebrated his one hundred and fifth birthday. “I don’t want to be like that,” my father says. He is agitated. He is lying on his bed. He swings his legs over the side, picks up his cane, starts to stand up, lies down again. He repeats this motion over and over again, only occasionally standing up and walking as far as the door of his room, then back. “I want to die.”

“I want to die. I want to die.” I hear this refrain over and over again but he also wants to see the doctor every Friday when the doctor comes to visit.

Shortly after I arrived at the beginning of June, my father had a fall. The nursing home called and I immediately went there. There’d been a bed check at five a.m. At six forty-five he’d rung the emergency bell.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. He’s a mess. His face is cut from his right eye to well down his cheek. His arm is broken. His hand is unrecognizable. It is a swollen lump like half a black cantelope. “I woke up and I was lying on the floor. I kept trying to get up and kept slipping. I thought it was water.” It wasn’t. He was slipping in his own blood.

He can stand more pain than any other person I’ve known. He once was on the road to his fish camp. He heard a car coming very fast on the gravel. He ran to the front of his car but before he could get any further a car came around the curve and rammed into the rear of his car, knocking him onto his back and driving his car over him. It ran up one leg and ended with a front tire on his chest. The driver and passenger thought he was dead. When they saw he wasn’t, they lifted the front end of the car off him. He

was paralyzed and couldn’t move. They put the car down, the driver lifted the front end and the passenger pulled him free. By the time help arrived, my father was sitting in his own vehicle and refused to go to the hospital. He did, however, go to the hospital three days later because of the pain. His leg looked like an overripe banana and had a crack in the bone.

No sissy, this guy.

They bandage his face and put a tensor bandage on his arm. He doesn’t complain. However, in the days to come, he is convinced that his injuries are the result of a beating. “I couldn’t have got hurt like that from falling out of bed,” he says, completely forgetting that he was found at the entrance to the washroom. The most likely cause was a TIA, a small stroke that often presages a larger one.

I come every day. I bring mr. big chocolate bars, jelly beans, licorice all sorts, bags of bulk cookies from SuperA. I’d bring gold and silver if it would help.

I nearly always bring Chico Bandito, my chihauhau because Chico loves to be patted and praised. For many here, a chance to pat a dog is the only opportunity to express physical affection. I’ve learned to say hello to everyone because while my parents have many visitors, some residents have none.

This morning, I picked up my aunt Florence and we drove to Selkirk to Gilbart’s funeral home. My parents want to be cremated. My mother wants her ashes buried in her mother’s grave. My father wants his ashes buried in my mother’s father’s grave. They’ve left clear instructions in their wills.

I’m a bit hesitant about preplanning. I don’t want to feel like I’m rushing my parents toward death. But we plan many things– marriages, pregnancies, christenings, educations–why not this? With the undertaker, I discuss the details of picking up bodies, of cremation,

of services then, with my aunt’s help, pick out two urns. A flowered one for my mother because the pattern reminds me of one of her favorite dresses. Seagulls on a blue background for my father because on his boat on Lake Winnipeg with blue sky above and blue water beneath, he always was happy. I think everything is done when I make out a cheque but I’ve forgotten my parents’ social insurance numbers. I promise to telephone with them as soon as I get home.

Later, when I’m back at the nursing home, I see a nurse bring my father his pills and, sitting

beside him on the bed while he takes them, rub his back and quietly tell him he’s doing just fine. My mother, awake for awhile, has had a good day because she participated in the face cloth folding where she can visit and still feel useful.

This is a place filled with tragedy but tragedy softened by kindness and compassion and, I realize, that those are two of the many things this place has taught me.

To change the world is impossible but to say hello, to lift a chihauhau into someone’s lap,

to accept my mother’s nakedness and help her dress, to hate my father’s paranoia but not my father, to take on the role of decision maker, these I can do to make the world a better place..

First published in Logberg-Heimskringla

Canada’s oldest ethnic newspaper

100-283 Portage Ave., Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B2B5

old age

Ask for mercy. Tonight, when you go to bed, before you fall asleep, ask for mercy.

When we are young, we want to live  forever, but that forever means staying healthy in body and mind. We are not familiar with God’s waiting rooms, with wheelchairs and walkers, with diapers for adults, with restraints that won’t let people stand up for fear of their falling. We are not familiar with adults having to be fed, one spoon at a time with food ground to a consistency of mush.

Ask for mercy, ask for an easy death or a long life with good health.
We all die. It is only the way of our death that is unknown until it occurs.

My mother is in a nursing home. At eighty-nine, she has macular degeneration and growing deafness. Her world has grown narrow. Her joy is using her walker to traverse the halls, the Friday night Happy Hour when local musicians entertain , the hymn singing. “I like music,” she said to me last week.

Two days ago, her caregiver noticed she her left eye was swollen and red. She arranged for the handyvan totake my mother to the local optometrist. My mother isn’t able to do that for herself. It appeared that there was a cyst in the middle of her eye. My mother’s caregiver arranged for the handyvan to take her to Winnipeg to see a specialist. It wasn’t an emergency but it was urgent. I drove to Winnipeg and met them at the Manitoba Clinic.

It took both of us to manoeuvre my mother’s wheelchair so the specialist could look into her eye. We had to help her sit forward and upright. The diagnosis? She has a viral infection that is the same as that which creates a cold sore. “Never heard of that before,” I said. She has to have drops put in her eye nine times a day for a week, then six times a day for a week, then three times a day for a week. Someone will have to do it for her.

The handyvan and my mother and her caregiver left and I went about my business. Driving my own car, making my own decisions, spending my own money. My mother will be wheeled into Betel. She will probably sit in the lobby with the others who gather there every day. They do not speak to each other but sit and wait in God’s waiting room, close to the doors that lock if they come too close.

Tonight, before you fall asleep, ask for mercy. For an easy death or a long life with good health.