To load the van, which included 6 people, two walkers, two canes, a step stool and a couple of bags, took over 15 minutes. Try and be nearly 90 years old, with your legs failing you, and see how easy it is to climb over two steps, assisted or otherwise. Ten minutes behind schedule, we finally were on our way to Hollywood. As we drove along the freeway and exited at Hancock Park, it became clear that some of my traveling companions hadn’t been to Hollywood in a decade or more.
That’s what old age does to you. It restricts your world, especially in a city like Los Angeles, where public transportation is not easy to navigate and not being able to drive any longer means relying on the kindness or availability of other people. From the perch of 51, old age now is intended as the time when our bodies start failing or, worse, or mental faculties give way to fog. We have no way of knowing how we will fare in our 80’s or 90’s – hope springs eternal we will get there in one piece and of sharp mind but other possibilities need to be considered.
And consider them I did as I sat next to the lady who, in a loop, told me every five minutes that she was going to have a cheese sandwich. Well groomed, the placid face of a cat on the front of her sweatshirt, I stupidly asked her if she owned a cat. Startled, she said no. Does my black sweatshirt sporting a green marijuana leaf implies I smoke dope? Because I don’t .
My father in law, proud resident of a cheerful facility for seniors, invited me to an afternoon for senior writers, organized by their writing teacher, at some very swanky retirement home in Hollywood. The van I chose to ride, rather than sitting in traffic on my own, was abuzz with the tidbit that the place we were about to visit charged $8,000 a month for a room.
“Do they give you gold along with room and board?” mused Harriet. Indeed, one has to wonder.
We alighted outside a building that closely resembled a Hilton more than an assisted living facility. A bright tent had been erected in the front yard, a buffet to rival many I have prepared for my clients beckoned inside; tables were covered in red tablecloths and beribboned old books were strewn about, to impart a faux musty library feeling. The six of us were shown to our table and quickly made a beeline for the free bar. Or, rather, I made a beeline for the bar and ordered for everyone else. Mostly wine. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon but, in this case, 5 o’clock somewhere else definitely was called for.
“The inmates are really well dressed here” chirped Harriet, by now my favorite companion. With her immense azure eyes and her caustic sense of humor, it was like looking at sofa girl well into the future. Not surprisingly, they also have a former profession in common.
The writing teacher turned out to be a gregarious, well intentioned and extroverted woman who, blurring names here and there, introduced about a dozen seniors who walked, hobbled or were wheeled to the mike to read a piece of prose or poetry she had deemed worthy of an audience.
The pitfalls of old age are easy to spot: a body that does not look or respond the way it used to, slower movements and slower minds and, even if in good health, pesky ailments that become chronic. The line between what we perceive as the life we were accustomed to and humiliation becomes thinner and thinner. But being condescended to must be the hardest thing about old age.
I witnessed a doctor, a few months back, talking to my father in law as if we were a child of four. We tend to have conversations with old people as if they were toddlers to be cajoled and tricked into doing what we want them to do. We fall into the same platitudes we apply to children we rarely see: “My how you have grown!”, “Do you like school?”, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”.
As the writing teacher introduced person after person, it felt as if she was showcasing the talents of every child in the playground. Isn’t little Tommy’s poem really cute? Not all of it was.
Encouraging older people to write their stories, helping them to stay mentally active and productive is no doubt a noble endeavor. But giving them a sense of worth goes behind pushing them in front of a microphone to share a silly poem – although, what do I know?
Some of the stories we heard on that December afternoon did stick around. Rex, prodded by his grandchildren, writes about his WWII experiences, in very great detail, one battle at a time. And Martha, stationed in Honolulu, remembered Pearl Harbor through the eyes of her sweetheart who, after the attack, never got in touch with her again, his death left lingering but not mentioned. “And some nights, before going to sleep, I look at his photo and spare a thought for him”. At 95, her heart is still as tender as 70 years ago, her husband looking on affectionately by her side.
And if I ever needed proof that we love and laugh and suffer the same way at 20 as we do at 90, Martha was that proof.
On the way back, along Santa Monica Boulevard, Harriet pointed out every notable sight, from Hollywood to the ocean, memories of a life gone by too quickly, and now confined within four constricting walls.
Carl, a shrink I saw for a while when living in London, once told me he found older people more interesting. My 27 year old self was deeply offended. I now see the truth of that statement. I would rather have tea with Harriet any day of the week than with Miley Cyrus. And I would make sure I checked the baby talk at the door.
Photo of graduating class found in the public domain