Monday, January 15, 2007

Old age: the shrinking room

Two elderly people that I love are going thru dreadful changes in their circumstances this week.

Of course I am in denial that -I- will ever get old and feeble*, but it is disconcerting to see how these strong-willed women have their space and their lives shrinking. *Simple denial, not some hint of depressed thinking, don't worry.

One is my aunt, who is losing her mind but doesn't realize it. She is getting all the loving care possible but is still angry and resentful about her circumstances. I can understand totally, to go from independent living to round-the-clock care in two years is weird. Naturally she's angry, look what she's lost: Her home. Her friends. Her church. Her bridge club. Her neighborhood. Her city. Her really good symphony. Her mind. Not necessarily in that order.

Think about the math of the situation. Either you or your spouse/partner will die, leaving the other alone [barring hideous accidents]. You will watch your friends die. The very people you want to talk to about all these things are the ones who are so unfairly being taken away from you. I have already had some very angry conversations with God on this point. There are several Psalms that are fists in the sky/arms too short to box with God.

The other person is a neighbor, who at 91 has been able to live at home with the attention of children and neighbors. I arranged for my housekeeper to work over there part-time to help her stay independent. I don't need quite so much help since the kids have flown off. [Yes I need help but of a different kind :) ]

My neighbor fell while holding the porch door open for a visiting friend. You do these things for decades and one day these simple actions are the cause of great changes. Her children tried to treat her at home but now she is in the hospital. When I walk by her home it seems so dark. She might never return. She is willing to hear my manic verbal wanderings, stories, and worries both as a good listener and as one who wants to stay connected to what's going on with the outside world. Difficult to replace people like that.

If she lives, her mobility is likely to be restricted. I have so enjoyed watching her go up and down the street, holding her cane horizontally like a tap dancer. What, you're supposed to put it on the ground? She says "that's for old people."

I think part of why I enjoy working with the old, the feeble, the sick, and even the dying is that I totally get the loss of dignity. As a child teased for being a hillbilly and a person blessed with ADHD, I've experienced loss of dignity for quite some time. Add childbirth, and all its attendant attendants to that, and I have very little original dignity left. Raising three teenagers pretty much polished off the rest, as they were happy to inform me of my many flaws. They'll get the picture when they have teenagers.

These children used to come with me to the nursing home to visit, sing, and play piano. The residents always loved seeing my little ones, because if you think about people in their 80's and 90's, sometimes even their grandchildren are grownups. They rarely see little kids. We would go around and shake or touch the hand of each person who was up for a visit. I generally went home feeling vigorous despite crippling asthma and then-untreated depression.

With smaller families and people moving far from home, we don't experience the full range of ages unless we consciously construct it. I hoped that someone in Ohio would "adopt" my grandmother, while I was visiting others' grandparents in Massachusetts and Virginia. I no longer have babies [must. resist. talking. about. grandchildren] but work with babies at the hospital. I feel a more whole person for having people of all ages in my life.

Usually there is much joy on either end of the spectrum. But this week, thinking about life and death as I pack my suitcases to help save the lives of newborns in Russia, I ponder the shrinking room of old age.

It is undignified.


egregious said...

Old age depression open house, all ages welcome.

What's on you mind?

Anonymous said...

Hi egregious. Just been reading through comments on previous threads. Not sure whether to comment OT here, or to add to the discussion below. Which would you prefer?

But, this is OT for the current, and in response to comments on earlier threads.

GrandmaJ mentioned being on a diet. My experience, FWIW. Always been skinny, despite efforts otherwise, until menopause. So, my usual eating style suddenly ended up with me gaining 35 pounds! Unheard of! Somewhere along the way, I read South Beach diet. I didn't get with it on the big regime of recipes, but the general advice to cut out sugar and carbs like potatoes and bread really made sense. Also the part about eating carbs leading to rebound hunger, and craving for more. w/o following the diet I just cut back on eating carbs gradually, as best I could. And, lost 25#s with no major stress! Oddly enough, eating carbs plus fat is less likely to produce rebound hunger and also less likely to send calories to fat, according to the info in South beach diet. Based on experience I agree. Ice cream okay!

Jacqrat and egregious! oh knitting. it really can be quite meditational in nature. Knitting was big during the late 60s-- and it's coming back. Is it just a coincidence that it was VietNam then, Iraq now?


Suzanne said...

The loss of dignity in old age is an all to real fear. I like your term "the shrinking room of old age". It nails it, eg, absolutely nails it.

Anonymous said...

Something slightly more on topic.. the insights and memories of the elders should not be lost. One thing for restoring dignity would be to tape record some conversations with them about now, and then. Oral history. I have done this a few times with older people, and I treasure those tapes and conversations.


egregious said...


I'm ADHD, everything is ALWAYS on topic :)

Yea it's a really strange thing when your appetite/body sense changes. I was a skinny little thing for so long and now am on the other end. I do see there's a link.

The diet which emphasizes protein and even [shudder] fat over the fast starch has worked well for me. I go for much longer without feeling hungry and deprived.

Interesting observation about knitting with this war and Vietnam. I was knitting then too! And then paused for decades. I truly think you're onto something here.

egregious said...


Glad you liked the shrinking room concept.

We were talking about Tom Terrific cartoons over at fdl and it reminded me of one where he is crawling in a cave and the path gets narrower and narrower and then ends. I don't remember what happened after that but the image has remained vital for me over the years.

I feel this is a good analogy of extreme old age.

Thanks for commenting, hope to hear from you again soon!

My responses might be sporadic as I'm leaving soon for Russia. Internet capability in my hotel unknown.

egregious said...


Re tape recording or video of the elderly re their experiences and stories, I'm so good with that.

I did a lot of genealogy interviews with my family and my husband's family in years past.

Hint: start with the oldest people!! And/or the sickest ones.

Their stories are such a treasure. I am happy to have them just for me and I hope they will be a source of information and awareness for the future generations.

Anonymous said...

Eg: Interesting observation about knitting with this war and Vietnam. I was knitting then too! And then paused for decades. I truly think you're onto something here.

Ah! Same for me. Paused for decades, now back at it. Same for my college BF- still "BF". She's knitting again too. That's what made me wonder.


egregious said...

Me talking to fdl. Just wanted to record a typical comment.

Mornin’. Am off to Russia this week for trip #29. Hope that counts. I am just an ordinary person who became offended when, as a child, I learned there were many children who died from lack of medicine.

Everyone can do something to help make the world better:

Act. Support. Encourage. Teach. Learn.

May I put in a good word for support and encouragement. Over the ten years of this work I’ve nearly quit so many times, but for the en-cour-agement [heart] of others. They restore my heart so I can help restore the hearts of children.

egregious said...

More thoughts on working in Russia. It's hard. Responding to AirportCat over at fdl---

Thank you for your kind words. Usually I don’t even have that kind of strength, but I do it for the children. I sit and stare for a long time at that mountain before resolving to start climbing once again.

Anonymous said...

I'm ADHD, everything is ALWAYS on topic :)

I get happily lost in your writing as I can feel the experience. I can relate to the intangible, irrational insecurity of leaving the room. There needs to be no specific reason just an uneasiness that builds. The room gets much smaller but the door doesn't always open.

Maybe depression is partially the mind's way to battle loneliness.

Life is better when I'm thinking of others rather than myself. I hope you're doing well and resting for your next adventure.


egregious said...


I'm SO glad you came over to read and comment.

And such glowing words...


I write what I feel even tho it is so different from what normal people experience, hoping to explain myself to the world. If it resonates with other people who feel we live in a strange place, that's just great.

Thanks for writing and hope to hear from you again soon.

Folks, I'm off to Russia soon so my ability to respond to comments will be sporadic. Understand/forgive please?

Katherine said...

"With smaller families and people moving far from home, we don't experience the full range of ages unless we consciously construct it."

I think this is really true. I'm really glad you're working to construct it, and I hope that more and more people will do these types of things (in big and little ways) to help keep older people in the fold of our communities.