It must be the temperate climate

Last fall I got a cold which turned into a persistent, horrible cough that made my lungs hurt so much I found myself at Emergency one night. Since we’d just returned from a holiday in Europe, the medical people responded with a cautionary scan to check for a clot, which can develop during long air travel. There was no clot and all proved well, and eventually my cough got better too.

But the scan picked up something described as “ground glass” or “white shadow” along the bottom of the lung. My doctor, who’s scrupulous, wanted it checked further. I took a breath test and had a follow-up visit with a specialist in respiratory medicine. He said the breath test results were good news and the shadow/glass probably nothing to be concerned about. Except that he wanted one additional scan and blood test done.

I wondered aloud whether this was necessary. He promised we wouldn’t go further, it was only to be sure. My kids tell me I should be glad, but I’m ambivalent. It feels like over-doctoring; I think of the expense. (Being Canadian, I don’t pay directly, but everyone pays for everyone via taxes.) As a relatively recent migrant to B.C. I’m remembering a recent news item in the media here, illustrated by an editorial cartoon in our local paper, The Delta Optimist



Gifts in the fog

I found myself watching the staff while visiting Mom at the nursing home last week. I was impressed. I saw the animated raised-voice cheeriness one associates with care for the very young or very elderly (where simplified games of bowling or keeping a balloon ball aloft or folding things are hurrahed as amazing fun), but it was more than that. A spirit of genuine kindness seemed the ethos of the Home itself.

My sister, food services supervisor there, told me that the staff like Mom.

That felt good. Whether entrusting our kid to teachers or parent to carers, we want, more than anything else, I think, those people to understand — “get” — our loved one’s  personality and needs and “like” them anyway. (Even more than we do some days.)

The activity director stopped by as Mom and I coloured together. She said Mom was a “gift.” Mom lifted her head. The director elaborated: her contentment, wisdom. Somehow she’d glimpsed the latter through my mother’s fog.

I asked the woman if she was scared to get old. She said No, because of her experiences working in the Home.

     “There’s no judgment from these residents.”

Another staff person, who came by to toilet Mom, told me she loves working with seniors. Because of their stories, she said.

“But you’re not getting many stories on this side, are you?” (Mom’s in the dementia and Alzheimer’s wing).

“I feel like a different person here,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I can really be myself. There’s no judgment from these residents.”

Wow, to both these women. Maybe kindness grows from looking for and receiving gifts, whichever way they come.


P.S. I was doubly grateful for Mom’s carers when I saw news reports that evening on rising senior abuse in Canada.


Mom’s advice

I’m in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, visiting Mom in the Mennonite Nursing Home.

My mother is 95, eight years a widow. She’s frail and in a wheelchair. Her memory and cognitive skills are greatly diminished. Conversation with her is difficult.

I brought along letters she and Dad wrote us in the early 1990s from Vienna, Austria, while they served informally in a Viennese church, thinking my reading them aloud would be a good thing for us to do together today. She listened intently, almost too intently; she was straining over them. Nothing in them connected. Even the fact that she authored most of the letters eluded her.

Tomorrow we’ll try something else, I think, maybe colouring together, or playing some simple Scrabble.

My experiences with my parents’ aging (and Dad’s death) add an emotional layer of complexity to the business of aging for me. I have much to say about that. But for now I’m in Rosthern with my mother and today in the dining room she took my hand and announced to her table mates, “This is my daughter,” reminding me that when I’m with her, I’m daughter-young. And then I feel my competence and my large stockpile of memory.

                    “You feel lonely,” she said.

But I had a good laugh with her when she asked me,  “When should I put you to bed?” I suspect she was wondering when staff would come assist for her nap, but in the moment of her “word salad” sentence, I was her little girl, her little Dorchen, as she called me in the days of putting me to bed.

I told her I was writing about aging and wondered if she had some advice. What would she say, I coaxed, about being old. That earnest, baffled expression in response, then, “You feel lonely,” she said. “You miss the parties [people] that are gone.”




I have a span by now

So we stood up from our comfy seats in the movie theatre the other evening and did that mental shakedown while the credits rolled, back into the real world from the reel* world of the big screen, and a sensation of giddiness and gratitude popped in me, over this one thing: I’ve lived long enough to have a span of history available to me. I can look back, and it’s a view, like from a hilltop over a valley. I mean, the valley is a decent distance and it’s a pleasure to see it.

The movie was “The Post,” and I remembered those times, remembered the people Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee and Daniel Ellsberg, and President Nixon of course, remembered reading Graham’s autobiography, Personal History, remembered from my first foray into journalism at a national Mennonite magazine how type used to be set with metal, etc. And I felt this remembering’s capacity to summon other memories alongside, and before and after. I could reach along a line.

     I can look back and it’s a view.

I think I’m trying to describe a store of knowledge that seemed in that moment a possession to appreciate, to roll in my hand like a beautiful marble, not merely for nostalgia’s sake, but because it’s mine and I still have it. And not believing for a minute that this store of knowledge is thorough or detailed enough—it’s simply not ever possible to pay enough attention in the moment—but, to mix my metaphors again, there’s a span to it by now. That’s what felt happy and significant to me.


*Note: I do know that movies don’t come on reels these days, but since my memories of movies started with film strips in junior high…

On Drabble’s “The Dark Flood Rises”

We’re about to get a lot of this, I’m thinking as I read Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises (2016). Stories full of old people, that is, as a certain generation of authors gets old. Not that literature doesn’t have elderly characters — King Lear, The Stone Angel‘s Hagar, Gilead‘s John Ames come to mind — but I can’t recall reading a novel where aging is so relentlessly the theme.

51zpQxCwB2L._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Fran, 70ish, is center of a cast of mostly older folk being older in their individual ways. She races about the country assessing care homes for the elderly on behalf of a charitable trust, another person luxuriates in bed, and so on. Not much happens, though that’s not quite true — there are two falls, one hip surgery, and two deaths, plenty of drama for those affected. But in terms of plot, these developments are inevitable and inevitability is no page turner. Flood threatens, as the title suggests, be it a migrant inundation, a potential earthquake beneath the Canary Islands, or the swell and fate of the elderly.

          Inevitability is no page turner.

I admire Drabble’s work; the book has good reviews. As sociology, it rings accurate, if rather pessimistic. (“The feeble…are outweighing the hale…. It’s a dystopian science fiction scenario, a disaster movie.”) But I find myself ambivalent. Maybe I’m too much like the novel’s Jo, who teaches a poetry class “On Old Age and the Concept of Late Style,” supposing it might be “ennobling or comforting or bracing,” only to find “it threatens to be lowering, this emphasis on age… depressing.”

As “old” in fiction begins to catch my eye, what am I hoping to see? What do I want from literature for this time? Is it realistic to hold out for nobility, comfort, a brace?

She says perennial, I say old

If I want to live this stage with integrity, I’ll have to accept the words that describe it.

Senior works well for shopping discounts, reduced fares, certain kinds of residences, and moments. Like the senior’s moment I had last week when I busied myself making gravy for our family Christmas dinner, forgetting for the entire process of collecting the ham juices, whisking in flour, adding salt and pepper and water and cream, that scalloped potatoes were bubbling in their cheesy sauce in the oven; gravy was not required.

Elder has overtones of honour, carries benefits and responsibilities, though elderly seems more bent and frail.

Old is a fine word, perhaps the best, a one-syllable word that sounds good when I say it, when I hear it: the opening “o” of awe or surprise, tongue tip reaching up then for the “l” and dropping decisively for the “d”. It’s accurate, the opposite of new or young.

     Old is a fine word, perhaps the best.

Old, of course, is broad. I think it’s fair to nuance older person with categories like young-old, mid-old, old-old. My current experience of aging is quite different, after all, from my 95-year-old mother’s.

A Washington Post article, “In search of a word that won’t offend ‘old’ people” by Laura L. Carstensen recently appeared in my Facebook feed. Carstensen says that decades of trying to persuade people to wear “old” proudly have failed and suggests a word coined by Maureen Conners: perennials. I’d already drafted this post and recoiled. Perennials? That’s as bad as the obituary euphemism passed for died.

I, for one, will try to use old with pride. I’ll try not to be offended by it.