gesture

Archived Story

Old people aren’t merely problems to solve

Published 10:19am Sunday, May 29, 2011

By Alexandra Kloster, Pass the Hot Dish

We are at war. It is a quiet war, imperceptible to anyone not fighting at the front.

Battles are waged in tiny apartments or family homes that are empty and too quiet, guest bedrooms in a grown child’s house or assisted living communities, forever trying to reconcile the fragile balance of how to assist without sacrificing living. The enemy is what we value most, the thing we all want more of until it turns on us and betrays us.

The enemy is time.

There was a death in my family this week. I guess at some point in my childhood my parents must have explained to me that Char wasn’t actually a blood relative, but it didn’t matter. Char and her husband, Bob, were our family. They were always there, and we loved them. Isn’t that family?

Tall, slender, with jet-black hair that eventually drifted into snow white, Char, with her extra long cigarette always dangling from her elegant hand, might have resembled a suburban Cruella De Vil if she’d had any meanness in her, but she didn’t.

She chirped when she talked. Her words fluttered and floated in the air making everything she said sound like a friendly song. The only thing scary about Char was her Chihuahua, Poco, who guarded her with the ferocity of one those flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Poco died a long time ago, but I can still hear Char breaking into laughter as she reprimanded him for snapping at me. I don’t know if she even knew how to be angry. If she did, I never saw it.

For the last two years of her life, Char waited for Bob to come home. Bob died 13 years ago. The last time I talked to Char it was a conversation in figure eights. She drifted in one direction and then another, always ending up in circles.

Alzheimer’s disease had invaded her mind. It was like watching someone fall down a hole in slow motion. It scared me. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing at all, and I listened to her beautiful voice become an echo of what it once was.

It takes a lot of tenacity to grow old whether you’re doing it in the midst of illness or just the passing of time. The only person I can think of who publicly celebrates longevity is Willard Scott. The rest of us run from it pausing only long enough to buy the latest cream, supplement or wonderberry that’s promising to stave off the effects of the most natural process we can experience.

You know who understands how futile that is? Old people.

The elderly understand a lot. The cruel irony of building up the wisdom and experience of eight or nine decades is that it’s at that point when people usually stop asking you for your opinion.

I’ve made that mistake. I made it with Char, and I’ve made it with others. The glare of disease or a walker or a wheelchair was so blinding that I didn’t see the person in front of me. I didn’t see the years of contribution or the longing for a purpose or the struggle to stay relevant.

Sometimes when I visit my parents I’m so preoccupied by the doctors appointments on the calendar or the medicine schedule in the kitchen that I forget to have real conversations with them.

I ignore who they are because I’m so worried about protecting them from themselves. I forget that those two complicated, funny, smart people still have a lot to teach me, and sometimes, though I hate to say it, I treat them like problems to solve.

There are millions of people living among us who are struggling to hang on to their identities and fighting against becoming invisible. A lot of them are losing.

Char became invisible even to herself. Maybe on Memorial Day as we are remembering the people who gave their lives for our country, we can also remember the people fighting this other war. We can help them win. By remembering that every one of them is a unique and valuable person before it’s too late, we can help them win.

Woodbury resident Alexandra Kloster appears each Sunday. She may be reached at alikloster@yahoo.com, and her blog is Radishes at Dawn at alexandrakloster.com.