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.