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Friday, March 1, 2013

Life Is...

I have two relatives who are over one hundred years old. Both women are phenomenal. Kay (age 102) is a blood relative and Mary (age 101) is related by marriage. I may share genes with only one of them, but both women have advice to share. Kay says her longevity is due to genes and to not worrying too much. Mary says her long life is probably a gift of genetics, too. I was thinking about age and health today after visiting our friend John, who recently moved to assisted living. He was our neighbor for more than nine years and we miss him.

John was one of the first people we met after moving in, and I soon learned that he was a good neighbor to everyone on the block. Each Wednesday morning he walked up and down our one-block-long street after the trash truck had come, bringing each person’s trash cans up to their house. He was quite humble and didn’t do it for attention, but because small gestures can show great thoughtfulness.

It’s been a few years since John brought trash cans off the street each Wednesday. He walks more slowly and no longer flies to Hawaii to see two of his daughters. But the last few times I saw him in front of his house, he was friendly, chatty and moving about. I mistook this for a sign that he was doing pretty well for someone over eighty.

John now lives in assisted living twenty minutes away, in a sunny, modern building with pretty landscaping outside. It’s a place that specializes in care for seniors with Alzheimer’s Disease. The extent of John’s memory loss only registered with me today. I’d thought he would recognize us but he didn’t seem to. Still, he was as friendly as he’d always been, and we chatted for almost an hour. He sat in a chair angled toward a window, and commented on the skateboarder out front, and the trash truck stopping outside. We talked a little about the arrival of spring. Hubby asked him about the lunch menu.  We listened as a group played trivia games. Some residents seemed very sharp, calling out answers to questions about US history, geography, cooking ingredients, and pop culture. Some residents seemed physically well, walking quickly through the socializing room. Others moved around with the aid of walkers or wheel chairs but their participation in games showed their sharp mental faculties. To my layman’s eye, some residents seemed as healthy and able as anyone else I knew living independently in their own homes. I wondered what had brought them to assisted living. Had they been living alone, able to take care of most of their daily needs, but forgot to take their medicines? I wondered if there are a lot more seniors living with Alzheimers than we realize. Perhaps it’s hard to spot symptoms, or we chalk up someone’s forgetfulness to everyday brain freeze. Everyone has off days.

When John moved to assisted living, we were surprised. He had been living in his home, was still out and about, and was chatty when he saw us. Perhaps the familiar setting masked some of his symptoms. Today when we visited, I could see the difference. I don’t know if he really remembered us, but he was friendly and polite, and we felt good that we could make him smile during our visit. It felt right to visit, to do something nice for him, as he’d been such a kind neighbor to us.

But it’s sad. It’s not easy to think about, and I’m still trying to process the visit. It’s upsetting to see that John isn’t doing as well physically and mentally as he once was. It’s disheartening that he can no longer live in the house he bought fifty years ago. It’s frustrating that while so many medical advancements are being made, Alzheimers affects more than 26 million patients worldwide, as well as their families. It’s scary to see a neighbor’s life become less vibrant because it reminds me of my own mortality.

Yet there were encouraging moments during our visit, too. It was moving to see how kind the staff were to all the residents, speaking to them in respectful tones, addressing them by name, and treating them like people, which after all, they are. It was nice to hear music on the stereo, to see flowers outside, and to witness the empathy of the caregivers. It was clear to us that those who work there are not just punching a time clock. It seems to be a calling. I was so glad to see that John is surrounded by people who care about the residents and want to make them feel welcome, when they are far from home in so many ways.

As we drove away, I thought of Kay and Mary, my superstar relatives who have lived a combined 203 years. I wondered how each of them has survived physically for so long, and has retained full mental faculties. Is there a secret to a long life? Is it just luck? Is it good genes? Kay lived alone until age 99, and Mary still lives in her own house. She has her children relatively nearby, and she has a woman come to her house for a few hours each day to do chores. Mary recognizes that help with certain things makes sense, but she relishes her freedom, too. We spoke recently by phone. She asked about my family members by name (with no hints on my part), laughed at jokes, commented on current events, and her voice sounded strong and full of gusto. I asked about her secret to longevity and she said she has a glass of red wine at dinner each night. Of course, I had to ask, “What else?” There has to be more. Tell me your secrets, please! These days there are countless studies about health and longevity. There are as many conflicting answers as there are studies. We seek formulas to life and health. But with both of these amazing ladies, their longevity (and sound mental health) seems to be something not mapped scientifically. Both have joy in their voices when you hear them speak. Is this their secret? Perhaps it’s part genes, part luck, and part magic (or some secret ingredient the centenarians themselves can’t even pinpoint). Maybe hunting this mysterious formula is counterproductive. Just be, I think these ladies would say.  

But as I think about John, it seems unfair. Yes, I know. Life is unfair. I think I saw it on a bumper sticker. But it stinks that certain people are dealt a bad hand of cards. I wish John could be as healthy and as independent as cousin Mary is. It’s hard to accept.

Visiting John gave him a boost, I think, and it was a good reminder for us to be grateful to be young(ish) and healthy. I’m still annoyed about the big pile of laundry that needs to be put away. I still have my garden-variety complaints. But I know I’m fortunate that I can live independently, that I don’t need someone else to put away my giant pile of laundry, feed me or remember my medicines. It’s okay to feel frustrated about the parts of life that we wish were different, but it’s also important to remember the ways in which we are fortunate.

We’ll visit John again and we’ll bring him more flowers from our yard. We’ll try to make him smile and hopefully he’ll be glad for visitors. If he doesn’t remember us, that’s okay.  Being a friend isn’t about getting credit for good deeds. It’s about doing something for someone else.

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