By: Joe D’Amore – April, 2019
My wife and I recently treated three relatives to a birthday celebration for one of them. Two of them are in their 80s, and one of them is soon to be 90. They’re sisters. They grew up in the Great Depression, under circumstances that exceed most understandable, modern measures of “hardship.” All three are with limited or little education.
All three have lost husbands, sisters, parents, beloved uncles and aunts, cousins, children. In varying degree, they have experienced life-altering sorrows. The total sum of their collective losses is staggering. .All three live independently, have some health issues, but can walk. One drives. They are in some form eccentric. All three live alone.
These women were, for decades, the anchors of their respective families. They were caretakers. They each spent more time making sandwiches at their kitchen counters than all the hours in my life. I’ve devoted to interrupt my busy schedule to help others in need. (I am 59)
But the other day, they showed their vulnerability. They anxiously waited for us to pick them up and take them to a favorite restaurant where other family members waited to celebrate a birthday but also the good things in life. I felt the uneasy feeling that we were temporarily “springing” them from a circumstantial prison, in a form of furlough. They were imprisoned by their frailty, lack of monetary resources, limited mobility and physical limitations.
I conjured a notion that being old — in your 80s and 90s — relegated one to being in a form of “house arrest.” They were totally dependent on others to release them from the confines of their homes to gain fleeting measures of freedom.
Memories poured out in unrestricted fashion with stories told (all heard before) about the “good times.” The laughter was excessive and people looked at our group with some disdain for the interruption we surely caused. Later, after the take-home containers were distributed and everyone arranged in our car for the ride home, we further engaged in silliness, bouts of joking, laughter and heart-felt retelling of family stories.
But as we approached the neighborhood in which all three lived fairly close by, a silence ensued. They were returning to their solitary abodes. They say that old people are like children, dependent on their children and other caretakers.
The reality is these women are not as advantaged as children. They don’t have interactive electronic devices. As we approached their homes, they were facing their solitude and all its harshness of silence. What they have are one-way communication, with the exception of a telephone; television, radio and vinyl records. And the greatest advantage they have is memories. But sometimes this is not enough.
What they need is fellowship with other people fairly frequently. The experience I had with them caused me to reflect very deeply about “aging in place” and getting old in general. I gained far more than I thought I was going to deliver when I joined my wife in arranging this gathering. I was smitten by the sweetness of their vulnerability.
One of them turned to me just moments before being escorted to her door. “It was a good day today. Thanks for what ‘use’ did. This is better than looking at four walls.” ◊
9 Cherry Tree Lane, Groveland, MA