I ponder what my life will be like when I’m ninety, ninety-five, one hundred and beyond. Do I want to reach these years? In the past five months I have come to know more than a few people who have long passed their life expectancy, and it’s because of them, I can say, yes.
My introduction to the elderly was as a volunteer in a nursing home environment, not the greatest place to identify with happy aged people. Most of the residents were non-ambulatory and half of them spoke little English. As I was somewhat conversant in Spanish and had a struggling command of a few other languages, I was able to get to know many with whom I would, otherwise, have remained a stranger.
Let me tell you about Claire. She was a hundred and five, a small, feisty woman ready to do battle should you approach her when she did not want your company. She was American born and had no problem communicated how she felt about anybody, including me. She’d point to another resident and hold her nose. And she had no compunction about telling me to take off. She wasn’t happy about having outlived her family and friends, and still believed that her long-deceased older brother was still alive and living in the mid-west.
No, she did not want me to sketch her picture, one of the things I did at the home, but she never objected to my sitting beside her wheelchair, and she’d watch as I sketched some of the other residents, rendering her opinion as to whether I had captured a likeness. Finally, one day she relented and allowed me to draw her.
At lunch, Claire held up the sketch I had given her, turned it to all sides of the dining room and called out in a loud, raspy voice “Look, everybody. It’s me!”
As you can see from the sketch of Claire, I tend to minimize age lines and sagging jowls. This is not so much out of kindness, but for me these characteristics compromise the personality.
After that, Claire and I were fast friends, and I always sought her out first when I arrived once a week at the nursing home. Then one day, she wasn’t there.
At the hospital’s Hospice Ward, Claire was languishing. The applesauce was still on her tray, unopened, next to a pitcher of water. The nurse had explained that she would not eat. I pulled the plastic cap from the applesauce container, and held a spoonful to her mouth. Claire bit me. Then she slapped the cup of water that I held up to her from my hand, and I mopped up the floor. I was excited. She had her teeth in her mouth and the strength to raise her arm to strike her hand at me. I hurried to the floor nurse. “Claire, is going to be all right,” I blurted out. “She’s her old self.”
Claire died the next day.
Footnote: You may be able to detect in the sketches a sense of loneliness and lack of motive to stay awake. Many of the aged are forgotten people who have no visitors coming to see them. A smile, a touch on the shoulder (even from a stranger like me), stirs a reaction. The hands come down from the face and the eyes open.
This is ample reward for my time. Perhaps you would consider it worthy of yours.