Old age: The equalizer? Print
Grand Mom
Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009 -- 1:00 AM

Grand Mom by Audrey Mettel Fixmer

It's a privilege to get old; not everyone has the chance to experience life in their 80s. It's a time when we can no longer hide our age with cosmetics and high style when there are other obvious signs of deterioration.

Whereas we once walked tall, carrying ourselves with grace, we are now shrunken and our backs are bent. The sure-footed stride has evolved into cautious baby steps. And the head held high now is bent to watch for possible ice or bumps on our path.

Most of us need eyeglasses, and some of us need hearing aids (and still can't hear the Sunday sermon). We Super Moms now require an hour nap (like our husbands had all these years) and go to bed by 8:30 or 9. We are humbled by thinning hair and the need for a cane or walker and ill-fitting dentures.

So what do we do now? We count our blessings: we can still drive a car, live independently, and reap the rewards of those big families we produced. Those babies whose first steps we applauded are now praising us for climbing a flight of stairs or learning to pay our bills online. Independence where possible and support where needed. That's the secret of happy aging, I guess.

Losing identity

I smile now remembering how it was when my husband first entered an assisted living home nearly three years ago. The sight of everyone quietly moving around with walkers made me fear that Bob would somehow lose his identity.

I went to great efforts to point out to the caregivers that Bob was unique. His difficulty in getting out words now didn't give them a clue as to the "real Bob": the gifted speaker, the actor, the orator. I suppose this compulsion to "explain him" was part of my grieving process. I knew he was slipping away, even though his moments of confusion were infrequent.

Three months ago Bob's needs for more skilled nursing care forced us to move him to Countryside in Jefferson. There again I felt the need to quickly hang the portrait of him as Chief Blackhawk, a role he played for many years in the hugely successful Blackhawk Pageant in Fort Atkinson.

This time Nurse Nancy quickly reacted: "Ooooh!" she squealed. "I was one of the little Indians in that play. I was scared of him. I thought he was real!"

I don't know whether that recognition influenced her care of him, but all I do know is that she loves him and enjoys his unique charm. She claims that they had to get a dictionary to understand some of his words, and repeats with delight some of his "speaker words" like "I want to thank you all for coming."

The memory box

At Countryside, a 150-year-old institution in a building just four years old, they planned to make each resident feel unique by installing a "memory box" outside each room. The families can place items that symbolize the unique qualities of the resident. It is a glass encased locked box kept lit all day.

In Bob's we placed an English grammar textbook to represent his years as an English teacher, but also his 30 years as a consultant for a textbook company. A small statue of Mary defines his faith. In addition, we have a small metal plane for his frequent flying days, a tiny set of drums for his years of playing in a dance band, and, of course, a family photo showing us with our 10 kids.

Our granddaughter, Bridget, came up with the best part. From her experience working in another nursing home, she knew how important it was for the staff to have a handy reference book to help them better understand their patients and their visitors, which could be especially confusing with a family as big as ours.

So she created an album of plastic covered pages in a three ring binder. The first page summarizes Bob's life, important dates, notable experiences, etc. The next page describes me, his wife. This is followed by a page for each of the 10 kids and their spouses, complete with photos of them as they look today. Each of the 10 is tabulated and followed by photos and summaries of their children and grandchildren.

It is such a great gift for each visitor to browse through while Bob is often asleep. So many people tell us, even good friends, that it helps them distinguish our family members and see where each one fits in.

I need not have worried that Bob would lose his identity. His caregivers make certain that each patient is unique. They want to know their stories. And because their dementia is creeping deeper and deeper, we all need to focus on better times. It's all part of our reverence for life along with a reality check for ourselves.

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