Tuesday, June 7, 2011

geriatric ward

My mother, at 95, was in a paranoid state yesterday. When we talked on the phone, she told me that she was sick of not living in "my house" (she lives in a rental apartment in New York City) and was tired of not wearing "my own clothes." She is quite hard of hearing, so it was difficult to transmit the suggestion that she go into her closet in the bedroom and find some clothes other than the muumuu she generally wears around the house. "I'm beginning to believe you're in league with the rest of them," she said accusingly.

One of her 24-hour minders clearly thought it would be a good idea if I came for a visit -- a trip that I find it harder and harder to make because of my own aches and pains. As time passes, my lifelong habit of lending a hand when asked (and often when not) is forced to face its own realities. I'm not sure which is more confounding/saddening/enraging -- the fact that I "won't" or the fact that I "can't."

Yesterday seemed to be full of geriatric concerns -- my mother's, my own, and then there was a note from Janet, 85, who noted that all of her friends (among those who were still alive) were to one degree or another enraged by their own infirmities or advancing inabilities. No one had told them and they had missed the clues that were all around them. Their sense of competence and control was under assault and remaining civil under the circumstances was increasingly difficult. "Fuck this!"

There is no escaping the inescapable and yet, young or old, it seems to be a human pastime. If insanity is rightly defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, then I think the proper definition of humanity needs to include some reference to this insanity gene...trying again and again to escape the inescapable, trying to live someplace other than in the moment at hand.

Those with analytical skills may refer soothingly to the loneliness of age. They do so with the same kind of mewling assurance that Buddhists can refer to "enlightenment." "Keep active," they say. "Exercise your body and mind." "Use it or lose it." And their encouragements may have some validity in a perky, stay-alive universe.

But I think I might be more convinced by such analysts if, in the same breath with their chirpy suggestions, they were willing to speak up for the right of every aging person to have a large, life-ending bottle of sleeping pills in the medicine chest. Most analysts do not have the balls or kindness for this -- they fear being party to what is called bad. Death is bad? On what evidence can anyone base such a premise? I'm not suggesting anything more than that aging people deserve an option that is less messy than bullets or opening an artery. Their own lives are their own. It's all that's left. They deserve the option to make a choice -- right, wrong or indifferent -- in the same way they deserve the option to choose spaghetti and meatballs from the menu. And if death turns out to be a mistake? Well, what they hell, most aging people know that making a mistake is not the end of the world.

Well, the washing machine needs some attention. I'd better get to it.

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