i'm in the elevator at my new hangout, knox metropolitan seniors' building, when an older lady gets on. her face brightens when she sees me. "hello!," she says eagerly. "that's a big suitcase." "oh, i guess it is," i laugh, "but it's the easiest way to carry the laundry around." "you're here to do the laundry?" she asks. "yes," i say, "well, i'm just doing a bit for my aunt." "your aunt!" says my fellow traveler, "how nice. now, which one is your aunt?" "mrs vale," i say, "joyce? she's on the fourth floor." "oh!" says the other lady, "yes. i see. mm-hmm." and with that, a metal door clangs shut our conversation.
clearly jo has not been making friends at knox met.
i've made it sound like i'm in this aunty jo conundrum all by my lonesome, but of course that isn't the case. far from it. mo and bobbee have been great sounding boards and cheering squads from their respective distances, and my mom's been terrific too. when we were in argentina, she wandered the entire fifth floor of the grey nuns hospital carrying a little teacup of fresh flowers, asking for jo by the wrong name and thereby only narrowly avoiding getting thrown into the geriatric ward herself. not just family, but friends come through in these circumstances, too. kate and beau took me out to dinner last night. jennifer is threatening to come over and weed the garden whether i'm here or not. (no egging this time, though, right?) renee said, "if we can't ask our friends to help with smelly mattresses, then the entire basis of the friendship is in question."
i don't know what living would be like without these people, this paint splotch of connections i call, too generically, my community, this chiliagon (that's for you, donna) of complex connections. i couldn't recognize my life as my own without my friends, and it's never occurred to me that i might have to. but over the last couple weeks i've had occasion to reflect -- for the first time, really -- on what life might actually be like when i'm old. i always used to think it would be pretty much the same as it is now, only with more yelling. and slower, i suppose, though i try not to think about that part.
now i question this rosy little picture. think of the last time you took a plane somewhere -- say, an edmonton-toronto flight. now imagine that you end up living in a seniors' building with everybody else in the "hospitality" section: people of roughly the same social class, with different itineraries, yet all on the same well-trod route.
that's knox met. if the globe & mail can be believed, it's not easy breaking into the cliques at the old folks' home. and why would it be? have you ever been anywhere that had more stringent social codes than an airplane? ever tried to "be yourself" in economy?: "actually, i don't care for chicken or beef. what i really like to eat for supper is cereal." can you imagine? on most flights, cranberry juice is tantamount to an alternative lifestyle! and it's not just the flight wardens that ensure conformity. admit it: you've watched someone try to get to the bathroom around the drinks cart, and you've clucked in disbelief, too.
lately i've been privy to many opinions about old people, and nearly everyone -- the 30-something clerk at the incontinence supply store, the filipina cleaning lady, rick the middle-aged steam-cleaner, social workers, nurses, doctors -- everyone agrees that old folks are stuck in their ways. this can be good or bad. the woman who cleaned jo's apartment thought it was good: "old people are very tidy," she observed. the steam cleaner was less enamored. "i'm trying to do this lady's dandelions, right? and not for any pay, mind you. i'm doing this for free, as a favour. and she doesn't want me taking care of her dandelions because of her cats. i've explained this to her over and over again, but it just doesn't matter to her. no means no." i'm a bit lost, but rick presses on. "now, same thing with your aunty. you see the wear on the back of this chair? old people grab their furniture in the same way every day, year after year after year." health care people are carefully neutral; the word of choice at grey nuns is "determined," as in "your aunt is a very determined lady!" (oh, i think, so that's what they're calling it now.)
what age do people choose to remain? for jo, i think, it's the 40s -- not her 40s, but the 1940s. she would have been in her twenties then, beautiful, and subject to lots of satisfying attention from men. attention from men is her crack. if only home care hired more handsome young men, we'd have her agree to a bath assist in no time. other women in her building, i think, settle in their 50s: kids raised, husband trained, house paid for. churchy women don't stick to an age so much as a protocol. (raise your chair back during mealtimes if you find yourself neighbours to a church lady!) you'd think holding onto a professional identity would be the way to go, but i wonder what life is really like for the smartly dressed english woman i run into in the lobby. is it harder for her to eat meals on wheels?
will our dotage will be any different? i try to imagine my sister's youngest, everett, who's not yet two years old, opining on his aged aunt. "she's impossible. everything has to be design design design. what does she need with a fancy designer diaper bag? oh, and the food! it has to be organic this, probiotic that. you'd think she'd be happy to be fed at all." i wonder what Activities they'll have at my old folks' home. no one i know plays cribbage or bridge, so you've got to imagine even old folks' homes will change with the times. but change to what: vintage CSI rerun nights? retro wii challenges? no, worse, i can see it now: scrapbooking.
quick: somebody build me a queer retirement home, where at least i can continue to exercise the prejudices i already hold.