Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Late Afternoon of Life

The Late Afternoon of Life, 2009

The late afternoon of life can be tough. Your memory’s not what it used to be. You get lost in familiar surroundings. You don’t get asked to make many of the decisions that impact you.

I was thinking of these things last night as I visited my 89 year-old mother at the rehab facility where she is supposed to be recovering from a broken ankle, the fifth such break in as many years. Only she’s not recovering well because she’s lost the will to recover. She’s been through this so many times that her resolve to get with the program is about as fleeting as her short-term memory.

As in most things, there is some humor in this stage of life, or should I say, comic relief for the caregivers. My mother has lived at an assisted living facility for almost five years. It’s a pleasant place, safe and clean, with a cheerful and kind staff. It’s not a big place, but big enough that some of its residents’ doors are marked with stuffed animals, photographs, wreaths, military caps and other recognizable personal memorabilia that help easily confused people distinguish one door from another. Living there has preserved my mother’s life and health long beyond what she could have done on her own and longer, truth be told, than she wanted it to be preserved. She knows she’s slipping, but copes with it by joking that “My standards are lower than they used to be.”

My friend Marjorie’s mother was in a similar state a few years ago. Her mother was living in a nice assisted living facility where she, too, was also beginning to experience significant cognitive decline.

Marjorie liked to take her mother out to lunch or shopping. Occasionally she would arrive and find her mother neatly dressed and ready to go, but wearing an item of clothing that didn’t belong to her. And every now and then Marjorie noticed other women at the facility wearing items of clothing that she could have sworn belonged to her mother.

Some of this you just learn not to worry about if you’re the adult caregiver. My mother once had a house, then an apartment, then a smaller apartment and now a single room, very little of which she actually uses. Her life is pared down to a few familiar things and places. We don't fret over the small stuff.

Marjorie’s mother was in the same boat. She had closets full of clothing, but stuck to the same few comfortable outfits. If something new showed up in the laundry or if something disappeared, Marjorie didn’t become too concerned.

But finally her curiosity got the better of her. It wasn’t that anything particularly valuable was missing (or, as we’re wont to say in the South, went missing). It was just that items of her mother’s clothing would disappear from her closet on one day and at her next visit Marjorie might find several new items that she knew weren’t her mother’s. Marjorie went to see the facility administrator, who chuckled knowingly at Marjorie’s account and then explained to Marjorie the concept of “shopping.”

According to the administrator, a lot of older people, especially women, miss the act of shopping. As they settle into senility, some of them lose their geographic bearings, as well, and, in a facility where halls and room doors look alike, they sometimes unintentionally wander into other people’s rooms and start to dress in or undress from whatever clothing they find in the closet.

When I first heard this story, I didn’t know whether to laugh or be concerned that the facility would let this “shopping” occur as casually as it apparently does. I’ve never known it to happen at my mother’s place. But by the same token, as my mother would probably put it, in the late afternoon of life when you’ve stopped caring about such trivia, it costs you nothing to let your standards down a little.


  1. What an insightful, thoughtful post. It certainly evokes memories of our recent dealings with elderly parents and grandparents in residential care facilities.

  2. This brings up many memories; some funny, some sad, all poignant. I won't bore you with them, but I always appreciate people who have a pragmatic view of watching their loved ones age. I don't have that yet and remain scared of that future.

    I hope she regains her will to recover, and does it with diminished standards. Life is probably more fun that way!

  3. Yes, this brings so many things to mind as I remember my grandmother's last year in a rehab facility. Your mother sounds like a lovely lady: I love her expression--very true. It's hard to watch someone else lose abilities, and none of us is ever prepared to do so. I admit I never heard the term "shopping." I guess working in these facilities is an education in many ways!

  4. a beautiful piece, chris. a little sad, maybe, but poignant and tender and full of compassion.

    your mom has a good son.