I just spent five days with Mom and her friends at the independent senior living place in my hometown of Phoenix. At the residence, the days vary to a degree, but are also similar. The dining hall is open from noon to 6. There, Mom meets the same group of recently-acquired friends at the same table at the same hour — 4pm —every day — Al, Diane, Mardel, Roz, and a new person named Dolly. They are the lucky ones. Living alone after long lives with spouses, children, and work, they still have most of their marbles, a degree of physical health, the ability to engage in activities and new friendships and to ask for help in the ways they need it. They are a lovely lot, but still, it can’t be easy.
Every night I make my own salad to bring down. In the dining room, the menu (and food) resembles Denny’s. Mom and her friends like it; it’s familiar and suits their tastes. In passing, they admire my salads, but take obvious pleasure in their own Denny’s-style food.
Most of them are a little hard of hearing, and have silent gaps in their story-telling, similar to me and my 60 & 70-something year old friends, as we, at our age, search with increasing difficulty for the right word to say in any given moment. In their 80s and 90s, their gaps are bigger and more frequent, but you can tell it’s part of the same continuum. They understand full well what is happening to their aging minds and bodies. I recognize their sense of humor about it. Their graceful if somewhat reluctant acceptance. In ten years I’ll turn 80. I feel empathy and compassion for them and me and all of us.
Mom’s having more trouble lifting herself out of chairs. Her quadriceps femoris (thigh muscles) have weakened. While there are some things you can’t change, there are some you can. I encouraged her to call the (handsome young) physical therapist (who she liked), who helped her after her pelvic fracture four months ago. I think she has a good shot at strengthening these muscles, at least enough to help her not have to struggle so hard each time she tries to stand. It’s a small thing, but as she probably stands up from a chair (or toilet seat) at least ten, maybe fifteen times a day, I think strengthening those muscles would serve her well.
Last week, Mom shopping at Marshall’s.
At 97 she’s grateful for the days she has, but like all of us frets over things when her body or mind doesn’t work as well as it did yesterday, or last year. Some of the changes we’re in for are inevitable. But not all of them. Whether it’s personal or political, I believe we have more power to make changes than we think. We just get distracted with other stuff, lose focus, or maybe didn’t know where to focus our energies in the first place.
To help us with these issues of focusing and problem-solving, mentors are helpful, and we should make use of them, whether they are family, friends, professionals, or friend-professionals. A lot of people know valuable stuff. We should make use of each other. Not pretend we know the whole route ourself. Not act like we don’t need help. Be open to collaboration. And inspiration.
One thing I’m sure of is that we are much more interconnected than we imagine. When we’re doing well, it has a positive impact on others. When we’re having a hard time, that impacts others too. We live in a strange time and place, where the norm is individualism and self-reliance. People hate to ask for help. Don’t want to appear needy. On a friend’s suggestion I once asked my women’s groups for help, a couple of hours of work in my backyard. It wasn’t easy to ask. But people showed up and helped mightily. I felt so much gratitude and was inspired by everyone’s willingness.
Mary Louise, Maximilienne, Lucy, Freidal, Deb, and Montserrat responded to my request!
A short time later, I proposed to the group that we do a project whereby one person a month gets to ask for help. It could be for anything — gardening, general housework, de-cluttering, re-organizing, anything. Something that would be a bit of a communal effort, take a couple of hours, something that would be helpful, so we could feel ourselves being part of something larger. So we could learn to ask. So we could have opportunities to extend generosity. But there wasn’t energy for it. Even though the same group of women has met twice a month for over six years, people seemed to draw a blank when they tried to think of what help they could ask for.
Living alone and aging, I’m finding I need more help than ever. I used to change all my own light bulbs, until this year. Now, that same ladder I used to feel confident on feels precarious; I don’t trust myself up on it alone anymore. I know how thin the line is between an intact and fractured body for a 69 year old woman. A number of light bulbs in the dining room ceiling fixture burned out months ago. I don’t usually let this kind of thing go untended for so long, but I kept procrastinating asking for help. When my friend Paul Moshammer came over last week, he happened to mention the word ladder, which reminded me of the lightbulbs, so I screwed up my courage to ask for… help. It was no big deal, and Paul happily obliged, but I noticed my own difficulty in asking.
Ann Lamott said:
“People help you or you help them and when we offer or receive help, we take in each other. And then we are saved. “
(and for a very funny and insightful perspective on the question of help, see Anne Lamott’s recent TED talk here.)
I’ll end for now with this amazingly helpful and inspiring piece for our time — a collaboration by Rebecca Solnit, Annabel Park, and Bob Fulkerson (which my good friend Anita Kline sent out to all her friends to be helpful and inspire). Successfully so!
By Rebecca Solnit, Annabel Park and Bob Fulkerson
“You know, it’s a truly frenzied roller-coaster of a time, and I understand that it is making a lot of people dizzy and sick and the change fell out of a lot of peoples’ pockets. But it’s also pretty amazing. This morning the president got nailed as a liar and obstructor of justice while the whole world watched. A bunch of Mormon women are actively working on behalf of undocumented immigrants (and some have changed party affiliation). Indivisible’s 6000+ chapters are building the foundation for big change in the midterms. The world is uniting to move forward on climate change without the US federal government; inside the USA, states and cities, 279 cities representing almost 60 million people at last count, are also going along with the Paris accords. France elected a climate-conscious guy. The United Kingdom is rejecting the Tories [update: Corbyn called on May to resign]. The judiciary system keeps rejecting the Muslim ban and a number of Republican voter-suppression and gerrymandering schemes have been overturned. A lot of government employees are quietly acting on principle.
Kamala Harris, the second black woman ever in the Senate, is laying the groundwork for going after Jeff Sessions, who’s caught in his lies, as is Jared Kushner. Whatever you think of the Democratic Party as a whole, a bunch of them are doing good work right now. Nevada sent the first Latina senator ever to the pallid senate, and Catherine Cortez Masto is standing up for everything from reproductive rights to public land. Maxine Waters isn’t a queen; she’s an empress right now, speaking so much fierce truth to so much corrupt power (and nudging giant white boys outta her way with panache). Elizabeth Warren–well, she persists with strength. There are some real heroes out there.
People who are in the limelight and everyday people doing their work quietly. People who see the old suffering that was already there–my amazing cousin in her nineties just wrote me about bringing kits of kindness to kids in the L.A. foster care system. People who are trying to ameliorate and eliminate the new suffering.
And it’s turning out to be not as much fun to be right wing as they thought it would be. They haven’t yet destroyed the Affordable Care Act and they’re finding out just how unpopular trying to do that is. Senator Al Franken says Republicans are scared, caught in a lot of dilemmas, and with today’s extraordinary hearings, they may be more so, not sure how to align themselves with a crumbling administration. Jared Kushner is in hot water. There are about seven investigations into this Russian/collusion business, and we don’t have to waste time on people who think it’s imaginary any more. Creepy congressman Jason Chaffetz saw the writing on the wall and quit, and a bunch of Republicans are on the lam from their constituents, afraid of being held accountable, afraid of democracy.”