going, going, gone

Much ado has been made about Alzheimer’s.  In the Netherlands there is even an entire, self-contained village where people with dementia live like ‘normal’ people.  Denmark has a community called, “Life in the 50’s” for those boomers who want to retire in nostalgia.  However, while championing the cause of the moment, we are neglecting entirely the real problem facing us right now:  our elderly.  Every 7 seconds someone in the US turns 60.  In 5 years, one-third of the population will be over 55.

 So what are we doing?  Building thousands of nursing homes instead of designing our present cities so that we can age gracefully in them.  I live in a lovely, long-established neighborhood but there is not a single sidewalk so that I can walk through it safely.  I could move to one of those retirement communities where everyone drives around in golf carts but that would get ‘old’.  Besides, I would miss seeing and learning from young people and though they don’t know it yet, they would miss me, too.

Since one-third of us will soon be in that special milieu just how ‘golden’ will those years actually be?  Our culture STILL has a fascination with all things young and Madison Avenue continues to sink millions into glitzy Cosmopolitan advertisements.  But who wants to be sold high heels when they have trouble climbing the stairs?  Who will buy the next high-tech gizmo that takes 20-20 vision and fast, nimble fingers to operate?  And while collagen may plump up your lips, it takes joy to really make them smile.  That feeling springs from a nurturing community, not a divisive one.

 We need to stop creating separate spaces that divide us and design ones that incorporate both young and old.  Imagine a park where Maya Angelou strolls with Miley Cyrus discussing poetry as Jack Nicklaus shows Justin Bieber how to swing a 9 iron. Hard to imagine?  Yes, but not so long ago that was how life in America looked.  People were connected face to face—not cyberspace.

Am I sounding political?  You bet.   If we continue devaluing the old while placing premiums on the young we will create a restless, impatient and mentor-less society.  Unemployment figures would shrink to zero if focus were put on aiding the elderly:  building one-level homes, designing smaller cities that are walkable, creating abundant parks, planting greenery and simply caregiving our real ‘antiques;’ the ones so priceless they cannot be sold at auction.



Everywhere you go nowadays you see ‘kids’ taking care of their elderly parents.  That wasn’t the case when I wrote, “Kissing Tomatoes,” 10 years ago.  At the time, publishers said, “Love the writing but no one will buy it.  Who cares about Alzheimer’s?”  Well, time changes everything. 

Just today, the woman in front of me at the pharmacy counter was waiting for her mother to write a check.  Dowager-humped and small, her shaky hand extended from a wrinkled, arthritic arm.  The wait for all of us was almost interminable.

Every few seconds, the daughter looked around nervously, then straightened her shoulders as if to keep herself from getting the hump her mother has.  She was so embarrassed holding up our line that I made small talk.

“Well, looks like you get to do all the shopping while Mom pays the bills.” 

She brightened slightly.  “Yes, we’ve always loved shopping together.  Just takes longer now.”

“No worries,” I replied.  “We’ll be there ourselves one day.” 

An hour later I dashed back to the same store for something I had forgotten.  The man ahead of me was turning his pockets inside out for change and holding a single bottle of water.

“I just need twelve more cents, right?” he asked in a nervous voice.  He was sweating and his face so flushed, that I feared he might be having a heart attack.

“Goodness,” I said to the clerk, “I’ll pay for his water.”     

“Oh no.  Can’t let you do that,” the man said.  “I have it here somewhere.”  He began searching his back pockets.  “I’m taking care of my mom,” he suddenly blurted.  “Never thought it would be this hard.  She’s driving me crazy.”

“How wonderful,” I replied.  “After all of those years she raised you, now you are caring for her.”

“Yeah, but the only problem is I can’t spank HER!” he laughed.

His car was parked next to mine.  As he jumped behind the wheel, I waved at the old gal next to him.  “Mom!” he yelled, “This lady just paid for my water.”  “How nice,” she said.  “And how nice that your son is looking after you,” I added.  “Oh, not for long,” she confided.  “The doctor said this thing I have will be over very soon.”  I glanced at the man.  He shook his head.  Yeah, time changes everything—especially us.


Picture this:  me backstroking in the middle of my half mile swim.  Have the lane all to myself and starting to pick up speed, which at my age is relative.  Thinking how I can’t wait until it’s over.  Then. . .smash.  Suddenly, I collide with my friend, Forest, who in his Alzheimer’s state of bliss has no clue what has just happened.  He has plunked himself into my lane without so much as a second thought or look.

“Oh,” he says with a gurgle.  “There you are.  I haven’t seen you in a while.”  Now this length of conversation is the longest we have had yet.  And, the most lucid.  Every day his caregiver sits on a bench at the end and waits as he wades back and forth in his flowered swim trunks and duck-like pool shoes.  He doesn’t swim exactly, rather plods from one end to the other with a laissez-faire stroll that would make a Persian cat jealous.

“Well, Hi, Forest,” I smile.   “It’s not a good day for climbing trees,” he confides.  “You’re right,” I reply.  “That’s why it’s a good thing we’re in the pool.”  Now I have to figure out my next move.  The lane next to us is open but if I move over it might hurt his feelings.  So, I continue.  Each time we get close, I pause until he passes and go on.

Just as I start my last lap, we reach the end at the same time.  “Hey, Forest,” I suddenly chide, “Wanna chase me?”  “Oh, Yes!” he says.  And with great anticipation on his face, Forest begins to ‘chase’ me.  I do the backstroke as he pursues.  His flowered trunks balloon around his hips like small sails.  I can tell he has picked up his pace, but no one watching would see a difference.  I don’t let him catch me, of course.  Just watch this grown man trying to come after me with all the glee of a young boy in pursuit of a rabbit; in this case, a ‘gray hare.’

I am already halfway up the steps to leave as he arrives.  “That was fun!” I say.  “Yes,” he smiles.  “And you are looking GOOD!”  “Well, so are you,” I reply.  At that moment, a rather large, buxom blonde steps down into his lane.  As I turn to leave, I hear him say, “I haven’t seen you in a while. . .”  (Helen Hudson is the author of, “Kissing Tomatoes,” a nonfiction memoir of the 13 years she and her husband cared for her grandmother with Alzheimer’s.  http://www.helen-hudson.com)



     I just handed my oldest the keys to the car and sent her out to the market.  For a brief moment, she just stood there and looked at me as if uncertain what I meant.  “Here’s the key,” I repeated.  “Just drive.”  I figure she’s had enough of me sitting in the passenger seat making her nervous.  She now has her license and it’s time for me to let go.  Ha!  Do we parents ever really let go?

        Okay.  So she’s been gone over an hour.  I’ve replayed the entire drive to and from back and forth in my mind several times.  But no amount of my worry will amount to a hill of beans when it comes to, ‘the other guy.’  If I add up all of the worrying I’ve done about everything over the last 40 years, it is quite clear that I have wasted months, maybe years, of precious time.  They should have been spent laughing, creating and exploring instead. 

        The really good decisions I’ve made in my life were mostly done on the spot out of a sense of responsibility, joy or love; like the day we moved Granny in with us.*  We didn’t work out a budget or decide how much time we would have to devote to her.  We just moved her in, Alzheimer’s and all.  In hindsight, it’s better that we didn’t know we’d have to add Depends to the shopping list, or that just bathing her might take an entire hour.  Love far outweighs anything on a balance sheet or a shopping list.

        And it was love that propelled me to send my daughter off an hour ago.  She will never spread her wings if I keep her tethered and I want her to fly.  She needs to feel that sense of full accountability when she is behind the wheel, to know there is nothing between her and the other guy but her own good judgment.  As a driver, she will have to make many ‘on the spot’ decisions.  If they’re done with responsibility, love and joy she will be okay.

        Oops.  Gotta run.  I hear the garage door opening.  My bird is returning to the nest; the same one I used to buckle into her pink, fluffy, car seat with her stuffed elephant.  My heart leaps with both joy and gratitude.  (*From, “Kissing Tomatoes,” by Helen Hudson.  http://www.helen-hudson.com).

P. S.  An hour after I posted this blog, I discovered that Wisconsin has launched a, “Just Drive,” campaign for teens.  It comes with its own yellow road sign and points out that while teens only account for 7% of all drivers, they cause 14% of all accidents.  How comforting.

AARP (An Age Richly Producing)

     I was mad.  Fuming actually.  Could not believe that the envelope I had just pulled from the mailbox was “an invitation to join AARP.”  Certainly this was meant for someone else; someone really old.  Not ME, the ponytailed girl who had just put in her ½ mile daily swim.  But no, it really WAS me.  “Can you believe this?” I practically choked to my husband.  “AARP sent ME an invitation to join, like I’m 65 or something.” “Well,” he replied a little too calmly, “I believe you qualify at age 50.”  “Ah Ha!  There!  You see?  They’re obviously confused.  I’m still 49 and plan to stay that way for a long time.”  He just chuckled.  I fumed. 

     My grandmother had been an AARP member for as long as I could remember.  THAT made sense.   What has never made sense to me is what AARP stands for:  the American Association of Retired Persons.  ‘Retired,’ if you look it up means:  “secluded,” “shut away,” and, “withdrawn from working or a professional career.”  You gotta be kidding me.  In this day and age who can afford to stop working at 50?  Who wants to?  Not only that, who wants to be associated with a bunch of withdrawn, no longer working people?  Not me.  I tore up the invitation. 

     That was then.  Now, however, I have come to enjoy the lovely discounts on hotels and rental cars my AARP membership offers—when I am travelling for WORK!  However, I abhor their acronym.  EVERYONE I know over 50 is STILL WORKING—STILL ACTIVE—and STILL HAVING …um… SCINTILLATING CONVERSATIONS!!  Here is what some of my “retired” friends over 50 are doing:  a  photographer with a recent showing in Seattle, a heart surgeon with a full caseload, an author, who just returned from a book tour in Europe, a singer-songwriter presently on a 30 city US tour, a college professor, about to publish a new book, a lawyer actively litigating the FDA, and an actor starring in a TV series, which recently won a Golden Globe.  Another just returned from a 3 month volunteer stint as a doctor in Nigeria.  This doesn’t even begin to include the less glamorous professions where ALL of my other friends are still gainfully employed. 

     When my grandmother was the age I am now, she had recently earned a masters degree , was working as a high school guidance counselor AND she was caring for me all by herself.  I actually said these words to her:  “Granny, what does it feel like to be SO old?” * Okay, so I was only five, but trust me,  I’m still kicking myself over that.  (*Excerpt from, “Kissing Tomatoes,” by Helen Hudson.     http://www.helen-hudson.com.)


     There is a mother on our back porch; a common, house finch.  For days, I watched her build her bowl-shaped nest on the 5″ by 5″ column ledge that supports the awning.  Trip after trip of gathering sticks never seemed to wear her out.  She flew her missions until that nest was as perfectly round and centered on the precipice as if it had been pre-drawn by a protractor. 

     The waiting began.  Sometimes, I would look up, see her eyes closed and imagine she was laying her eggs.  For weeks she sat, even through the deluge of tornadoes, rain and floods which shook Nashville to the core.  Undeterred, she merely preened her feathers and waited.  I grew tired of waiting and forgot all about her until the day I heard chirrupy peeps and looked up.  Three, tiny heads, just barely above the lip of her nest were open-beaked and squawking.  In she swooped with worms from the wet ground and they fought for her delicacies. 

     Many days have passed and those heads now tower over a space too small for their size.  The nest is no longer neat or centered, but has shifted several inches to the right and looks shabby.  The right side is bent down low from the weight of that mother patiently standing to nourish each open mouth.  Displaced twigs and debris have fallen to the ground underneath.  Feathers and dung are splashed and stuck to the sides.  There is nowhere for them to go but out now.

     I was 40 my first Mother’s Day & until then, my life had been all about me.  So thoroughly thoughtless and self-centered was I, that years earlier I said something to my cousin which still haunts me.  She had recently given birth to her first child and we were to meet for an afternoon coffee.  She phoned at 2 PM to say she could not make it.  “The baby was up all night with colic…has a diaper rash..exhausted …just now headed to the shower.”  My reply?  “It’s two o’clock in the afternoon.  You’re just NOW taking a shower?  What do you DO all day?” 

     She is an empty-nester now.  Her three daughters are grown and gone into lives of their own.  Mine will soon follow.  And Anna Jarvis, who 100 years ago began “Mother’s Day” as a tribute to her own mother is gone, too.  She  was bereft at the commercialization that her special day ultimately became:  “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”  Had she ever had children of her own, they would have been as proud of her as I was of the grandmother who raised me.  (Hudson is the author of ,”Kissing Tomatoes,” a memoir of 40 years with her grandmother.  http://www.helen-hudson.com). 


     I first dragged my girls to play piano at nursing homes when they were in middle school.  I wanted them to see firsthand what it’s like to get old–really old.  I also wanted them to know what happens to you if you can’t take care of yourself any longer:  Strangers do it.  Enough said.  At first, my oldest was intimidated by the bizarre behavior of those whose wits had failed.  While she played, one woman  kept yelling at her to, “Get out of my house.”  My youngest went squeamish at the smells and sights. 

     While those experiences had a sobering effect on them, it didn’t last long and that’s probably a good thing.  Why dwell on ones demise before one reaches the brink of all possibility?  As teenagers now, their lives are mostly all ahead of them.  They are navigating those chapters after, “The Preface.”  For those in the homes where they played Chopin and Bach, life is mostly all behind in the chapters before, “The End.”  

     What most of us seem to forget, though, is that ALL of Life’s chapters carry equal importance.  What good is the Introduction without the Epilogue?  How can you understand Chapter 27 if you haven’t read chapter 8?  The finest part of our stories ultimately comes at the Conclusion; that transfixing moment where all the tribulations and triumphs that made us human culminate.  Who were we?  How did we navigate our birthrights?  Ultimately, what did we offer this world where we make such a very, brief presence?  

     I cherished my children from the moment I knew they were forming inside of me.  My husband and I marveled over their first words, held our breaths at their first steps, dried their tears and held them close.  Someday, though, someone else will hear their last words, watch their final steps and hopefully, hold them very, very close.  We will likely not even be here when our girls reach the very age we are now.  I have done the math.  So, I have to hope that the world they are aging into will one day embrace the wrinkles, the mottled skin, and the dementias.  For it does not now and the gap between our young and old is very wide indeed.

     How to bridge it?  Take the kids to Grandpa’s.  So what if he is cantankerous and crotchety.  All the better.  Let them see how they don’t want to grow up.  Pay your kids to rake the leaves off, “Old Aunt Becky’s” porch.  Better yet, if your own parents are beginning to lose their grip, move them in with you.  Even in the moderate stages of Alzheimer’s many are finding it both cheaper and more rewarding than a nursing home.  At the very least, you’ve offered the example to your children.  There’s really no time like the present.  (Helen Hudson cared for her grandmother for 13 years when she had Alzheimer’s.  “Kissing Tomatoes,” is her story of those years).  http://www.helen-hudson.com