Old Age Sure Ain’t for Sissies!

Posted on August 26, 2011


“Old Age Sure Ain’t for Sissies”[1]

       “ Isn’t that sweet – they’ve found true love right here in a retirement home.”

“Sweet? I think it’s disgusting. She threw herself at him … he didn’t have a chance.”

“But Mamie he seems to like her, they’re always together.”


“They’re together because she won’t let him out of her sight. I hear her knocking at his door before breakfast and sneaking out at all hours. “

“Oh my!”

“Furthermore she’s a lush. She reeks of booze.”

“ But he seems happy. He’s always smiling.”

“Beatrice, that’s not a smile. He’s had a stroke and it’s affected his facial muscles.”

“Oh my… Well at least she’s got male company. They’re aren’t many men in the place.”

“You got that right. Furthermore, they’re either married or over the hill.”

“But aren’t we all over the hill?”

“Speak for yourself, I’ve still got some bounce left in me!”

“If you say so Mamie … but I can hear you rattle when you walk.”

Retirement centers are popping up like dandelions.  Unlike nursing homes they’re designed for folks who can look after themselves – more or less. They’re for seniors whose kids worry about them living alone and with the best of intentions deposit them in ‘a safe place.’

The degrees of disability among the residents range from obvious to minor.

These hands have....

Some get asked: “Why are you here?” The answers include: “The kids worried about me being by myself, and I was lonely;” “I started forgetting to take my medications;” “ I’d get lost the odd time – nothing serious mind you, but it worried my son;” or, “ My husband has had a couple of minor strokes so we decided to sell the condo and move here. Furthermore, I was sick and tired of cooking. ”

Some residents still drive. At lunch an eighty-eight year old gentleman preparing to take his driving test is being grilled by two friends: “How many demerit points for failing to stop at a pedestrian crossing? How many for failing to wear a seat belt? How many for….?”

In addition to the drivers and more or less independent residents there are those with cognitive or physical disabilities who need more care, but not enough to move into a nursing home. Old timers grill new arrivals: “Where did you live? How many kids?  What about grandchildren?…. What did you do before you retired?”  To which one new arrival pleaded: “Give me a break, they say I’m getting Alzheimer’s I can’t remember all that stuff.”

These senior havens range from modest to luxurious, including those where you can rent or buy your accommodation – like a condo. Spaces vary from a studio up to large two bedroom suites with kitchenettes. Like luxury hotels those at the high end provide first class dinning rooms, fitness facilities and training, hairdressers, movies, computer rooms, swimming pools, even room service.

Most offer two levels of  service: ‘independent living’ and also‘ assisted living’ for those who may need help with their medications, bathing, eating or getting around. Those receiving assisted living may reside on a separate floor and have their own dinning room, nevertheless they still have access to all the services and facilities noted above.

Trained PSW’s (personal service workers) assist the residents, and there’s on site nursing care and a visiting physician.

A Place for Forgetting

A mother asks her visiting daughter to make an appointment for her with the resident hairdresser. The exasperated daughter replies: “Mother, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times you already have an appointment next Tuesday morning at 10.30. Give it a rest will you?” To which her mother replies: “But isn’t this a place for forgetting, isn’t that why you put me here?”

If we’re honest the answer must be yes. We place our seniors in retirement centers not only because they’ve fallen or had a minor stroke, not only because they forget to turn off the stove or take their medication, but also because their loved ones reach the stage where they can’t stand the uncertainty – they need to move the parent into a place where they can forget about them … at least for a day, a week or a month. Not forget about them in a cold or thoughtless way, but rather in a way that helps them unload the anxiety and frustration associated with caring for forgetful, fragile parents or mates.

But when visiting them the anxiety and frustration returns. A mother complains that her daughter never visits her: “But mother we were here last Saturday for your birthday, with Lindsay and Brendon your grandchildren, we had a party – don’t you remember?”

“Dad it wasn’t me who took away your driving license it was your Doctor – he said your medication makes you drowsy … you have to take it, it’s for your heart.”

“Mother please eat a bit more of your fish… you’re just skin and bones…!”  Mother pokes at the fish. Pushes bits of it around her plate. “MOTHER!  YOU’RE JUST PLAYING WITH YOUR FOOD LIKE A CHILD!”

There’s a crusty guy who asks everyone the same question: “How’s your liver? Mine’s shot to hell. Can’t drink anything but milk… just like a baby.” And whenever it snows he loudly proclaims, “ Notice how the first road they plough is the one between here and the funeral parlor?”  His son shakes his head:  “Dad, that’s not funny.”

On visits kids and mates understandably try to be caregivers. They come burdened with ingrained and obsolete expectations about their parents, unconsciously attempting to transform them back into who  they were…. forgetting that they’d already failed, forgetting that was the reason why they delegated that task to the retirement centre. In contrast, the on-site professional caregivers are working with your mum and dad as they are now, not with who they were. That’s why the PSW’s don’t burn out, at least not as fast, as kin do when burdened with the constant care of a frail senior.

Yes, retirement homes are places for forgetting, the residents forget and so mercifully can their children – at least until their next visit.

This Medication in Short Supply.


It’s hard for kin to give up the caregiver role. Letting our parents inevitably and gradually disappear into old age is hard. But it’s not so much care giving that’s in short supply.   As a consulting physician said to a distraught daughter whose mother was losing weight: “I understand your concern and the staff are working on it – they’re trained to help seniors with finicky appetites.  But to spend your visits arguing with your mother over food is probably not good for either of you. During your time with her you can provide what the staff can’t. You can relive with her some of the precious times she can remember, and provide the joy of seeing her grandchildren. We have all kinds of medications here but we can’t share treasured memories or prescribe love and affection.”

This advice comes from the same physician who spends a morning a week at the retirement home seeing patients – usually accompanied by one of their kids. The same physician who throws up his hands in despair at the endless pleading – mainly from the relatives – that he fix this, or that, and another thing … that he somehow stop their loved one’s slow limp or shuffle into old age.

And the forms – ‘the bloody forms” – the doctor spends half his time filling out government or insurance company forms, and their endless requests for more information to justify this or that treatment:  “Please complete section F-1b justifying the patients need for…  wheelchair, or dietary supplement, or expensive drug A rather than inexpensive Drug B, or physiotherapy” …whatever.

Little wonder he occasionally cancels his weekly clinics at the retirement home to attend a medical conference that just happens to be right next to a great golf course.

Food… Food…Food!

Dinner time...

Many of the residents lose track of time – “What day is it… Wednesday?” – but they know when it’s time to eat! They start herding toward the dining room right on the button. One smart ass singing out “moo… moo … here come the cows wending our way to the barn door. “

Meal times are so important, breaking the boredom and loneliness, providing close contact with others at tables for four, even if little is said. The same people tend to eat together, meal after meal, day after day so there isn’t a lot of ‘news’: the weather, a phone call from a daughter, sport scores, driving tests, the new resident with the strange accent, a budding romance… and of course one topic trumps all others: the food! For seniors with spernikety appetites food is vitally important. So the chef is important – more than the nurse, or the doctor. Well, just a minute – those serving the food are pretty darn important too – they’re the targets of the perennial complaints – “it’s cold, it’s dry, it’s raw, what’s that?” The servers encourage and cajole those with no appetite to take a few bites of this, a spoonful of that. They’re the ones who try to rustle up alternate servings from the one the resident rejects even though they just  ordered it from the menu.

Old age ain’t for sissies. And looking after them ain’t for the impatient or faint-hearted. Studies indicate that care-giving spouses are six times more likely to show signs of cognitive decline than average.

The course of true love…

The course of true love never did run smooth! We opened this discussion with a budding romance that shocked some while titillating others. Like starry eyed teenagers the two lovers spent more time together, holding hands, giggling, nuzzling until… until…. Romeo’s son and daughter-in-law intervened. Why they intervened remains a topic of whispered asides with the gossipers enjoying a ‘terrible experience’: did the kids feel Pop’s wasn’t getting enough sleep… or that the arthritis in his right hip was acting up… or was the family inheritance possibly at risk? One resident claimed to have heard Juliet asking Romeo for money, but “she hears all kinds of things – her hearing aid’s on the fritiz – she probably heard ‘money’ when the word spoken was actually ‘honey’.”

In any case the tippling Juliet was instructed by the powers that be to cease and desist inflaming Pop’s heart, hip, and whatever else she was setting afire. Her response? That evening she strode into the main dinning room, went to his table, took his head in her hands and planted a great big kiss on his lips glistening with salad dressing. She turned, bowed to the surrounding gawkers, strutted out the door but not before adding a couple of hip flips on the way for good measure. How will it end? Time will tell but the smart money is betting on Juliet.

The Experts…


What do the experts have to say about retirement? A lot. Most of it focuses on financial planning. Question: “How much money will you need to live comfortably?”  Answer: “ It all depends, but usually somewhere between 50 and 75% of pre-retirement income so start saving early.”

However the experts don’t have much to say about what it’s like when a senior gives up most of her independence and actually moves – or is deposited – into a retirement facility.

Simply put life is one long battle against gravity. Infants fight to stand up while seniors fight a losing battle to stay standing while being constantly reminded by those around them that gravity always wins, being reminded what their future holds. Lacking such reminders the rest of us can create positive futures in our imagination – life is good, or pretty good, or will get better. Ignorance is bliss?  But the healthiest retirement home residents, immersed as they are in the infinite array of disabilities see their diminishing future shrinking before them: “Hey Ho I’m on death row but there ain’t  no appeals to the Big Guy in the sky  to commute my sentence.”

So the mental health of the senior is probably better served by delaying retirement home living as long as possible – by delaying exposure to the constant sight of others gradually succumbing to the insistent tugs of gravitation – urging them to give up and ‘lay me down.’  On the other hand the ‘burnout’ of their caregivers – mates and children – must also be factored into that equation. So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  A profound problem with no simple solution, but one typically resolved by eventually moving mum or dad into a retirement home due to a crises: a fall, a minor stroke, a cancelled driver’s license, a small fire caused by punching the wrong buttons into the microwave, or the departure or burnout of the primary caregiver.

Old age ain’t for sissies. But we must acknowledge the quiet heroism of many – most – of our retirement home residents. Typically they’re widows – some recent, many long-standing – who bear their aches, pains and loneliness with quiet grace and dignity. Periodically in response to some small kindness, the little girl or women buried inside emerges, and you glimpse her in her prime – playing on a swing, going on her first date, her college graduation, wife, mother, teacher, lawyer…. Her eyes light up, she smiles, even laughs, reaching out she touches your hand, giving you a look that says “Ah, you know… there’s more inside this wrinkled, creaky old body than meets the eye – thank you for reminding me.”

Hey..Hey! Flickr: flickr.com/photos/coneygal/3920941745

These hands  ..Flickr.com/photos/aknaytibor/519904899/

Lonliness  Flickr: .com/photos/katie3416/4606880419

Experts: Flickr: flickr.com/photos/raster/3380860520

Dinner time, Flickr: flickr.com/photos/joost-ijmuiden/3616764425

[1]  Attributed to Bette Davis

[1]  Attributed to Bette Davis

Posted in: Sciencing