Old Age Hitchhiking

As we age, we fade. It may be unwelcome, but it isn’t a surprise.

Along the way to kaput, most of us want to remain true to our values. As health, mental capacity or whatever escapes our grasp, we want to live well, or correctly, or faithfully, or whatever distills the essence of our best selves.

But sometimes in the midst of infirmity, all we can ask for is peace.

My mom knew that she didn’t want to be around this planet if she couldn’t make contributions to the earth or the people that it cradled. So to hang on to her values, she tried hiking and waving for a ride, at age 93, with her walker, on busy River Road south of Portland. She was about a quarter mile from her senior center when an employee spotted her traveling in the bike lane with four wheels, rather than two.

Mom got picked up, but it didn’t have the result she planned.

At the time, Mom was living in an assisted living apartment above the Willamette River. She was an optimist who had vascular dementia with good days and bad. She always savored days of clarity when she believed she was swimming out of the fog. For good.

But the haze always seeped back in to confuse her soul.

Mom tried to use her good days to focus on people who were new or had to eat alone. At group events, like a resident tea party, she sometimes took her camera to capture other residents so that she could give them a photo afterward.

On a very bad day, she may go to a gathering for residents and then sit around with a scowl and grumble with a limited vocabulary about “stupid people” or “silly things.”

She had become a person of extremes.

She often shared flowers from the two plots of roses that I helped her maintain. A decade earlier she didn’t need my help. She watered, pruned, and weeded so that she could harvest her blooms and those of the neighboring plots (mostly with permission) to take to residents who were cooped up at the Health Center in her complex.

As her strength and awareness faded, we made rose deliveries together. We often paused to visit with someone who needed to talk more than she needed to smell a rose.

On delivery days Mom would go to the Glacier Lily memory care unit first, to “get it out of the way.” One of those days, we paused before the outer door, and she proclaimed, “If I ever get in here I will never get out.”

“What do you mean?”

She whispered, “People who come in here never get to go back to their apartments. They die right here. Don’t you ever put me in here!” Her pointer finger was so crooked that it didn’t point, so she just waved her hand at me for emphasis.

After our rose deliveries, we visited the Health Center’s Harmony Garden. She led me down each path until she sighed, “I can’t remember which tree I donated. It’s so frustrating.”

“Does it matter? You bought a tree and you could have had a ‘donated by’ label on it, but you didn’t want that. We know you helped make this place so beautiful.”

“Only ‘hoity toities’ label their gifts.”

I looked around and said, “I think you wanted to get a lace-leaf maple. Let’s look and see if we can find it.” The first one that we came to was a lovely red-leaf weeping specimen. It became her tree.

 

I was working in California when I got a call from a nurse at the retirement center. “Suzy, I’m sorry that we have a problem with your mother’s living situation.”

“Is she O.K.?”

She is fine, but she left the premises today and was seen down River Road in her walker.”

“Do you know why she left?”

“Well, she told us she was trying to get to the elementary school down River Road so that she could talk to the principal about volunteering.”

“But, you said she is OK?”

“She’s fine. But we can’t have her taking off on her own. Now that she is a flight risk you will have to move her to a secure part of campus.”

With Mom’s free spirit and variable cognition, she was always going to be a flight risk if she could find a way to do what she wanted. She would have to move from her treasured view the river.

I asked the nurse about available apartments at the Health Center, and she let me know that the only apartment by Harmony Garden was in Glacier Lily. Locked in. Like they wanted her to be anyway.

That night I flew home to face miserable choices. I remembered the times Mom had wanted me to take her to that elementary school to volunteer. Her logic was sound. “I saw on the news that they have dogs going into schools so that the little kids can read to them.”

“Yep, having someone to read to is a good thing.”

“Well, I’d be as good as a dog. I want you to take me to the school up River Road so I can volunteer.”

“You’d be way better than a dog. But Mom, they need volunteers who always show up. Some days you don’t feel well. You are determined, but you are 93 years old.”

“I was a good volunteer in Cannon Beach, and I can do it again.”

The conversation would continue as I reminded her of the good things she did like growing her roses for the Health Center. I thought I had steered her from the idea of volunteering, but I guess I never really did.

I would love to have moved Mom to a retirement complex that was closer to me, but she was programmed to live out her life at Willamette View, so we were stuck with the choices they gave us. The room in Glacier Lily had Mom’s maple tree outside a window, and the walls would hold art she loved. Those things were good, but I’m not sure how we would have managed if there hadn’t been enough room to hang the silk quilt my sister, Ann, made. Ann lives in Europe, and Mom treasured the shimmering quilt above all her other possessions.

My brother, Bill, flew to town the following day. He showed up in a starched oxford shirt, Cole Haan loafers and a merino wool V-neck sweater. It was his uniform on casual days. But he wasn’t there to do much real work, just for the cheer Mom would have in seeing him. He was always a trophy as she walked through the complex with him by her side.

The fog lifted on moving day and Mom was excited to have us all around. We tried to explain what was to happen, and then Bill took her for a ride while the movers worked with my husband, Michael, to get most of the moving accomplished. When Bill and Mom returned, Michael went with them to her old apartment to bring in the last few things to her new room. We thought that she needed to be part of the move to help wire it into her head. At least it would be a start.

The guys kept it light as Mom wheeled between them along the halls and tunnel from her old view of the river to her new view on the garden. She kept asking why she had to move. Michael and Bill took turns at offering explanations that were always truthful but lighthearted. They reminded Mom that she had tried to go to the school and told her that Willamette View couldn’t worry that she would take off again. That would be dangerous.

When she seemed to grasp reality for a fleeting moment, she laughed and said, “I just messed up once, and now I need to move? I won’t do it again!”

Sadly, she was out of time to learn from her mistakes.

We told staff to tell her that her new place in Glacier Lily was temporary and that she could move as soon as another apartment opened up on the garden.

We lied.

 

There were days Mom was happy to be in Glacier Lily. She could be herself. No need to impress anyone. No worry about what a nosy woman would have to say if she flirted with a man. But right then, the men in Glacier Lily were too far gone to be any fun for flirting. There was one guy who often drifted around looking for a connection, but Mom just kept her door closed to block “the crazy.” He didn’t last long anyway.

On Mom’s best days, she realized she was hanging out in an expensive place with few privileges that mattered to her, but Aileen, her massage therapist, astrologer, and shamen, helped Mom with acceptance.

 

I watched Mom’s thinking crumble, and just as I presumed she was nearly gone, she surprised me with a revelation. It was a secret that she’d held for seventy years, a mystery that down deep I knew had existed, but had never imagined before.

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