Whenever I go back home to see my mom, I usually spend some time visiting with her cousin D., who lives in the house across the street from my mother’s house. D. has spent a good many years taking care of his elderly mother, my great-aunt. I have known D. all my life. As a child growing up, he was one of my elders. As a young adult, coming back home now and then for visits, I often didn’t know what to say to him when our paths would cross, thinking I didn’t have much in common with him. Now we are both intimately involved with the care of our elderly mothers and this brings us a companionship I never would have imagined.
My great-aunt is now 96 years old, and has Alzheimer’s. D. is in his late 70’s, and it was only last year that he finally conceded he could no longer care for his mother at home, even with hospice visits once day. She needed far more care than one person could provide, and the burden of her care was taking a huge physical and emotional toll on him. Nevertheless, placing her in a care facility was traumatic for him, the more so because he had next to no help from his brothers and sister. In addition, there were the usual struggles with insurance. I’ve spoken here a few times about my own frustrations in navigating the health insurance and Medicare mazes for my mother, and I am a pretty highly educated person who has worked in research and the pharmaceutical industry. It’s been a nightmare for D.
D. used to visit his mother every day at the nursing home, but lately goes only three times a week. The visits seem to upset her, and they certainly upset him. She cries, and wants to go home, though she doesn’t quite know what or where home is. When she was still at home, most evenings there would come a point when she would begin telling D. “I’m tired, I want to go home now.” But on a recent visit she was having a very good day, and seemed happy, and relatively lucid. She told D., “I felt very good this morning. I scrubbed the kitchen floor.”
My first reaction to this was that it seemed very sad and poignant. In these late years, what is left of her memory goes searching back, and in a glad moment brings back for her….scrubbing the kitchen floor. Oh, I thought to myself, I don’t want to be mentally scrubbing the kitchen floor in my dotage; I hope my memories are something more exciting. I hope I am on the beach in Jamaica, marrying Mr. Z; or at Cape Hatteras, my dad still alive, surf-fishing. I want to be in the lab in Germany, figuring out how common nutrient levels that vary from one culture medium to another play games with phospholipid metabolite levels in colon carcinoma cells. Or in my friend Afsaneh’s tiny little apartment kitchen, making dinner with her and Annette. Or at Kansas State, where my dear colleagues and I have worked together for so long on a grant proposal that we are now literally writing it together, one of us typing and the other mousing and a third on the phone giving input, and all of us laughing. Or in DC, visiting my dearest oldest friend, going for lunch at Lauriol Plaza. Or in my garden, just finished weeding a patch, and admiring my newly planted oakleaf hydrangea (one of this year’s wished-for shrubs). Or even just inside the plot of an Ursula K. le Guin novel.
I am unlikely to be adrift in memories of floor-scrubbing, if only because I have spent precious little of my life engaged in such a pursuit. But I still worry about the content of my late-life mental vacations. This is why: Earlier this morning I had a massage appointment. While I was lying on the massage table and the extremely expert massage therapist was working magic on my sore shoulders, I found it incredibly difficult to stay focused on the massage, to stay focused in the present. Because I was mentally composing this blog post. Last night I sat on the sofa next to Mr. Z. We didn’t talk much. I didn’t suggest that we go for a soak in the hot tub before turning in for the night. Because my mind was buried deep in the internet, reading and chatting with online friends.
My fear is that, should I live to an old age like my great-aunt, my drowsing mind will imagine it is on the internet, writing blog posts, Facebooking, managing comments, following links. Is this, perhaps, a less noble pursuit than my great-aunt’s floor scrubbing? She was always proud of her clean home, as my mother was proud that no one ever left her house hungry. (Stuffed to the gills, maybe; but never hungry!) They were engaged in family-making and community-building though I doubt they ever paused to give their work labels or connect it to lofty ideals. Their community was well-known to them, a good portion of it related to them, and nearly all of it contained in that little town. Mine is electronic, far-flung, and known in large part only through words. Last night Mr. Z asked me how many of my Facebook “friends” were people I’d never met. About a quarter of them, it turns out, which is probably lower than the norm, but still shockingly high to me.
What to do? I suppose here is where I should vow to spend less time in front of the screen but one should not make vows one is not prepared to keep. What I will try to do is just to be more conscious, more intentional, when I am not in front of the screen. More there. Though I can’t always help it if blog posts just start working themselves out in my mind at the oddest times and places, can I???!!?!
What about you, dear readers? Tell me what you hope your dreams in old age will consist of. Maybe you’ve already lived it, maybe it’s something you hope to do or accomplish. Maybe you hope to be dreaming about how the stock market suddenly rebounded in mid-2009 and a sudden blizzard of tenure track jobs were created when state and federal funding floodgates for higher ed were flung wide open! Yeah, that’s it!