My 102-year-old grandmother is causing a ruckus at her retirement home and we have been told she must find a new place to live.
I don’t share this because I want to start a social movement or online petition (“Let Nanny stay!”). I share it because I hope one day someone writes a similar statement about me.
I don’t know what part of this is most striking. Nanny’s age? The fact that she is causing a ruckus? The fact that I used the word ruckus? Or maybe it’s that one of the homes under consideration for her has an eight-month waiting list, and not one of us worries she won't last that long.
There are several reasons why Nanny is facing relocation: Apparently she has begun to curse like those kids your mother warned you not to pal around with in school; she puts up a physical struggle (all 70 pounds of her) when nurses try to ready her for bed; and she has taken to wandering out of her suite in the wee hours to pay visits to other residents (or inmates, as she refers to them) while they lie sleeping.
We have known this day was coming. We have been lucky enough to have Nanny live for many years (although in gradual decline) at a retirement home rather than a nursing home. This has been mostly thanks to her incredibly good physical condition, the result of a life filled with swimming (which she usually did naked in her country pool), golfing (which she played into her 90s) and skiing (as young ladies, she and her sister used to strap skis on their backs and hike up Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, then ski down).
I suspect the home has also let her stay because, until the relatively recent swearing episodes, she has always been one of those cheerful elderly people – preferring to look on the bright, and more often than not, irreverent, side of things.
It’s not her physical condition that has the managers requesting she find alternate accommodation; it’s the unravelling going on inside her head.
The day it turned, at least for me, was nearly 10 years ago, when my husband and I drove Nanny from Toronto to Montreal to visit my aunt and uncle, who were then taking her to spend Christmas with them in the Laurentians. After five hours in the car chatting, as we were driving into the city, she piped up from the back seat: “So are you people friends of Ann and David’s?”
I’m pretty sure I gasped. I know my heart broke a little. My grandmother didn’t know who I was. My husband grabbed my hand and said quietly, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” But it wasn’t okay. I stammered, “I’m Kelly. I’m your granddaughter.” “Oh,” she said, “Kelly. That’s right.”
The moment of confusion had passed, but it was the beginning of a new era. Nanny was starting to lose her memory. It didn’t go all at once. As most of us have experienced with elderly family members, there are good days and bad days. But the downward progress is relentless.
At 97, she fell and broke a hip. The surgeons decided to perform a hip replacement. The operation was a great success. But following the surgery, she would attempt to clamber out of her hospital bed, forgetting where she was and why she was there. The nurses were forced to position her bed in front of their station to keep an eye on her, then use restraints when she still managed to give them the slip.
When we visited, she would look around the room and announce, “This doesn’t look like my usual hotel room.” We would explain that she was in the hospital. “Why?” she’d ask. “Well,” we’d say, “You broke your hip.” “Which one?” (What is she, made of steel?) “Which one hurts, Nanny?” Furrowing her brow, she’d prod her hips. “Well, this one doesn’t feel quite right,” she’d say, pointing at the repaired one.
She recovered well, physically at least. But getting her to remember to grab her walker – a new acquisition – was difficult. Once my mother went to collect her for an overnight stay (my grandmother referred to it as “busting out of the hoosegow”). Upon arrival, my mother said, “Now wait here while I get your walker from the back of the car.” Nanny looked completely disgusted: “I use a walker?” It was news to her.
When she was released from hospital and was back at the retirement home, my aunt hired night nurses to keep an eye on her so she wouldn’t get up in the night, forget about the walker and end up on the floor. Nanny awoke one night to find a young nurse sitting beside her bed. “Who are you?” she demanded. “What are you looking at?” When the nurse explained what she was there for, Nanny replied, “Well, I don’t need you.” The poor girl fled into the night.
In some ways, memory loss can be a blessing, since you forget the sad stuff, too. My father, Nanny’s only son, died at 61. Days and weeks go by when she doesn’t remember that. I once told her, after my father had died and in a way that made clear I intended it as a compliment, that she was tough. She replied, “I have to be.”
In recent years, Nanny has become a shameless flirt. With her memory all but gone, she must be forgiven for occasionally asking about the marital status of men who are related to her. But she still appreciates a handsome man.
That’s another thing I hope they write about me when I’m 102.
Kelly Coleman lives in Toronto.