By Martin Bayne:Martin has been an assisted living resident for more than 10 years, and credits many of his ideas to his experiences as a Zen Buddhist monk and an MIT scholar. His website is TheVoice0fAgingBoomers.com; his literary journal—showcasing authors ages 60 and older—can be found at TheFeatheredFlounder.com.
I now share a table in our dining room with a 99-year old woman we’ll call “M”.
When I met M for the first time – yesterday evening at dinner – I cried uncontrollably for a good half-hour. In retrospect, I realize that my tears were the first shed since my mother died last month. The last four weeks I’ve been wondering when the grief would finally hit . . . and yesterday was that day.
I suspect it’s also because M has an uncanny resemblance to my mom: sunken cheeks, translucent skin, and the other myriad realities of old age – making her even more precious.
Today at dinner, I found myself again in tears – only the second time in 4 years I can remember shedding tears in the dining room. This time the sluice gates opened when M mentioned her dog, Cowboy, and how desperately she missed him, “He’s slept with me every night for eight years,” she said. I asked her to describe the dog and I then realized the dog is now being watched over by a member of the staff, here at my facility. In fact, I remember seeing the dog just yesterday – brought in by the very same staff member – who it turns out is M’s granddaughter! [I promised M I would look into it tomorrow].
But M said something else today that triggered a small epiphany. You see, “ambient despair,” a term I coined to describe the phenomenon in which residents constantly subjected to abnormally high rates of dementia, death, depression and disability, “fail” quicker than their counterparts who receive the majority of their care in the community and at home.
Yet I’ve always felt that something was missing from the equation. And tonight, as I bit into a crab cake, and M finished talking about Cowboy, she said, “The trouble with being this old is that everyone tells you what to do . . .as if you were a child.” That’s when the lights came on. The inconsistent, manipulative policies of both staff and administration in any top-down management system eventually trickle down to the residents.
Here’s an example: my facility has the ability to pump FM radio throughout the building, and every day they anesthetize the residents with the same, dreary, monotonous “golden oldies” station. All of which begs the question, “Did anyone ever ask the residents what they want to listen to?” (There’s a great little NPR affiliate station in Bethlehem, PA – just a stone’s throw from where I live.)
So, every day, at an arbitrary time slot – whether I’m talking to a friend, writing an essay or reading a magazine on the john, I can be absolutely certain I’ll hear those immortal words:
If you wanna’ be happy
For the rest of your life,
Never make a pretty woman your wife,
So from my personal point of view,
Get an ugly girl to marry you.
A pretty woman makes her husband look small
And very often causes his downfall.
As soon as he marries her
Then she starts to do
The things that will break his heart.
But if you make an ugly woman your wife,
You’ll be happy for the rest of your life,
An ugly woman cooks her meals on time,
She’ll always give you peace of mind.
Don’t let your friends say
You have no taste,
Go ahead and marry anyway,
Though her face is ugly,
Her eyes don’t match,
Take it from me she’s a better catch.
Saw your wife the other day.
Yeah, she’s ugly.
Yeah, she’s ugly but she sure can cook.