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My life in an old folks' home Add to ...

I’ve been living in a seniors’ residence for more than four months now. The last thing I ever expected was to wind up in my mid-70s in an old folks’ home. But what one wants or expects is not necessarily what one gets, as we all know.

Late last summer, a life-threatening illness followed by major abdominal surgery almost carried me off. I knew I was in big trouble when I awakened in hospital from a morphine-induced haze and saw my extended family gathered around me to say goodbye.

Well, I fooled them all and made it out of the intensive-care unit. After a long stint in a rehab hospital, I was able to move out of the health-care system. After having lived independently since my divorce almost 30 years ago, I was now unable to live alone any more. I instructed my two daughters to sell my condo. They sold it in three days for a good price, leaving me with a profit I could spend on new accommodation.

I didn’t need to be in a nursing home, but I did need to live where I could get help quickly if I were unwell. After some research they found me a good place to live in a caring residential community.

So here I am, in a retirement home for seniors who can function well in “independent” living.

It’s an education to live amongst a group of people whom I did not choose to be my daily friends and companions. I’ve been here long enough now to have mentally sorted them into two general groups.

Group 1, the larger of the two, includes those whom I am always pleased to sit beside at morning coffee or afternoon tea.

Group 2 includes those from whom I casually flee – whether to the other side of the room or back to my own apartment. The latter is, however, the more interesting collection because of their unpredictability.

There is one person who is bossy and cantankerous, ordering us around on the home's activity nights with instructions on where not to sit. Another resident is painful to sit beside because of an apparent aversion to bathing or doing laundry.

Several residents are forgetful. They seem quite normal when discussing daily events of our residence or current news. They can even discuss popular TV shows or old movies. But these old souls have lost the ability to manage their long-term memory and tell the same stories over and over. Much of their conversation is related to food, because we encounter each other at meals, where food triggers many memories.

Those who have lost their short-term memory are in poorer shape. One resident won pretty jewellery one day at a game we were playing. Later, she was wearing her new necklace, but claimed she had never seen it before and did not know how it came to be around her neck. I have never seen it since, and she forgets she even has it.

Saddest of all are the few women who look normal, but are simply shells of their former selves. They have been assisted in bathing and dressing by their caregivers, and can feed themselves and enjoy attending events here. But memory loss has stolen the present from them. Several women live here with their husbands, who care for them with great tenderness. I admire these men (whose wives do not recognize them) more than I can say, especially since they keep smiling through their various challenges.

Though most of the residents here are women, there are a few single older men who mostly don’t look their ages. I am always surprised when one of them tells me he is 88 or 90. I find it interesting that generally the men who have survived to a great age are quite sharp and don’t repeat themselves, while many of their female contemporaries are suffering memory loss. I wish I knew why so many women’s short-term memories decline and the men’s do not.

Many of the residents don’t even know the last names of the people with whom they live and socialize. One of the male residents is non-communicative and just sits in a chair, day after day, getting up only to go to meals.

I admire that the excellent and caring staff are respectful with all the residents, addressing us by our formal surnames. I count myself as fortunate indeed that I have landed in a good house where I have found a few new friends and can get help, should I need it, in a matter of minutes.

It has been hard giving up my condo with its many amenities, but the bright side is that within my one-bedroom suite here, I am almost as independent as I once was in my downtown city digs. I have my little dog here with me, and he’s much loved by the residents. I also have my car.

And, as my adult children reminded me when I was making the move, I don’t have to cook or clean any more, because meals and housecleaning are both included in my rent. Now that’s an old-age residential plan I can live with.

Elizabeth Bream lives in Toronto.

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