January 5, 2023
We like to speak of senior citizens as a class, but in fact they come in two types: young seniors and old seniors. Young seniors are the ones in the retirement home ads: they play tennis, walk on the beach, and flirt with white-haired people of the opposite sex. While engaging in these activities, they ingest vast quantities of prescription pills without failing to smile at the ceramic pot taking shape on the turntable beneath their muddied fingers. This despite the pills’ side-effect warnings, delivered in staccato by an authoritative voice on TV, that are enough to knock a mastodon on its back, hooves flailing in the air. By contrast, old seniors are the ones who don’t recognize their own adult children and have to be spoon fed.
I am at present a young senior. While I don’t play tennis, I do swim. I used to be a medium-fast swimmer and now I’m a medium-slow swimmer. It is no longer unusual for me to be passed in the pool by a woman one-third my age and more than twice my speed. Still, I get my laps done and I hop out of the pool without climbing the ladder. I hope that when I morph into an old senior, I will have the common decency to check myself into assisted living, an adult family home, or at the very least a residence of the sort depicted in the afore-mentioned retirement home ads.
My father did not do that and I view his case as a warning. Dad admirably arranged for both of my grandmothers to move into “The Hearthstone,” a retirement home on the shores of Seattle’s Green Lake. Although they both lived in the same building at different times (Nana moved in only after Manie died), you would have thought from observing them that they lived in different cities. Manie, my mother’s mother, referred to herself and all the other residents as “the inmates.” Being French, she snorted and snuffed in the elevator, impatient for her next cigarette. Rarely deigning to converse with the other people going up, no doubt she regarded them as “vulgaire,” her worst insult. When I had lunch with her in the dining room, she always chose a small table near the window, as far away from the other inmates as possible.
Nana, by contrast, insisted on a large table in the center of the room, a perch from which she rotated her neck at least 180 degrees, the better to wave at her fellow residents and to gossip with me about which ones were good at bridge, who used to play the organ in church, who had great-grandchildren, and which ones were dating again, with whom, after being widowed. Life was a colorful pageant and Nana was at the center of it. Before lunch was over, many of the diners came up to our table to smile at Nana and meet me, the grandson she was so proud of, and we had a regular party going up in the elevator afterwards. I always loved Nana for this. She was clearly a lot happier than Manie had been, although there was something to be said for the wit with which Manie dispatched one or the other of her fellow-inmates, sotto voce, into the category of purgatory.
Now back to my father. Having settled both his mother and his mother-in-law at The Hearthstone, did he learn enough from the experience to plan for his own residence in a retirement home? No. He preferred to be entombed within the white, modern glass house he had designed fifty-five years earlier, a house made all the vaster by the absence of my mother, who died in 2012.
“The only way he’ll leave that house is if he falls and hurts himself,” my partner predicted, and that’s exactly what came to pass. One day in 2015, Dad fell and broke his hip in the master bathroom. Fortunately, he was evacuated to the hospital by the elder day-care person I had signed up to look in on him most every day. Later he did rehab at of all places, the Hearthstone, a place I’m quite sure he had resolved to avoid. He never returned home, which was his own fault, because when the house was built in 1960, the architect (Dad) had seen no need to install a bathroom on the ground floor. This omission necessitated multiple trips every day up and down a stairway which no doubt prompted his broken hip to protest. “Who, me?” I imagined it asking. At that point, by any measure, Dad had already been an old senior for at least the three years since my mother died, and arguably many more. For several years, he erroneously thought that he had won two million dollars, attainable for a fee of $75,000 payable to someone with a cellphone in Nigeria, but that’s another story.
Most of us see the positives in being a young senior—we look forward to the golden years when you have plenty of time to travel far and wide and maybe even learn how to bake—but we balk at becoming old seniors. The grim reaper comes twice, the first time being when we have to face facts, abandoning our large homes and moving in with inmates. The hardest thing to do is to admit that he has come the first time, but the worst part is knowing that the next time he comes will be the last.