Let me state upfront that I am an original Baby Boomer. I was born in 1947. I am an only child and the nephew of an aunt who is 95 and never married. My parents are still alive as well. My mother is 89 and her mind and body are failing. My dad is 90. He has good genes. He is the oldest of four—two sisters and another brother. They are all alive, too. In fact, he still has an aunt who is alive, well, and clear headed at 102.
So why am I writing this piece? Because I think many of you can relate to this. My aunt never expected to get frail. Physically she is an amazing specimen but, alas, she is in the throws of dementia. My mother has no leg strength and recently fractured her hip—the latest of uncountable falls. She is in a care facility and my dad is at once lost without her, and filled with anger that this could have befallen them. But what they all share is me. They all think I am their health care plan.
My wife and I have talked to them for years but to no avail. My dad, the big dog, will not tolerate anyone or anything that does not agree with him. And in his head, he is a healthcare professional because he watched my mom. It was useless to point out that she has fallen many a time on his watch. But in his head he is still in his robust 50s, a time when he could and did take on all comers.
A few days ago, they took my mom back home to see how she could navigate their house—it is on two levels. It was a nightmare. But all through the trip my dad pushed back , pooh-poohed, and denied every recommendation they made. He doesn’t get it. He never will. He doesn’t see that it is about my mother, not about his ego. I am sure I will write of this is coming pieces. Another story for another time.
Meanwhile, my 95 year old aunt had been living alone for the past thirty years or so, since after my grandmother died. My aunt was always independent and unconventional. She was a hippie, in mindset, long before there were hippies. She was a Bohemian long before there were, well, Bohemiens. She smoked Parliaments and drank Scotch. She was athletic long before the Tennessee Lady Vols or the Uconn women. When I was a kid, my little buddies and I couldn’t wait for my aunt to come over to the house and spend the weekend. She was our Pied Pier, our private scout leader. She took us all on hikes and walks through the woods, and played games with us until it was us, who dropped.
But now, my aunt has descended into dementia. Her life has become a full-time OCD ride because she has no short-term memory. She has lost her cognitive abilities and would spend each day as a never-ending Ground Hog Day, calling people endlessly with questions about her bills or her bank account, because she couldn’t remember that she had already done that. She was “drowning in paperwork,” though most of it was junk mail. She would attempt to go through it but she was unable to throw things away. Then she’d get distracted and do something else. Later she’d come back to the pile of paperwork and it would seem brand new so she would have to go through it all again. Doomed to ride the human version of the wheel in the squirrel cage.
I did my best to help her. I pay her bills, did her banking, and did her grocery shopping, I called her often. I answered her more and more confused calls. Sometimes she would call and just ask what day it was or what was today’s date. It was so sad. This once cool lady was reduced to this. She kept copious notes in a tiny monkish handwriting on scraps of paper. Recently, I found a stash of notebooks from as far back as 1959 that meticulously listed what each member of the family gave and received for Christmas, with the amount she paid for each item, including the tax. Once at a small family gathering just a few months ago, she asked my wife where the other wife was, “you know… the one who doesn’t come here very often.”
A month ago, I discovered that my aunt was entitled to in-home services from a health insurance policy she had purchased a while back. So I had a site nurse do an evaluation of her and her little home. The first three words from the nurse’s mouth as she entered my aunt’s sad Cape Cod styled home were, “Oh…my…God.” The next three words were, “Oh…my…God.” After going through the house and testing my aunt’s cognitive ability, she determined that the house was an unsafe environment for her. With the help of her family doctor, he agreed that my aunt could no longer live safely at home. Thankfully the stars and the universe lined up. I was able to get her into a Care Facility and though she now wants to know where she is, why is she there, how did she get there, and when can she leave, she is transitioning rather well.
But now it has become my burden to go through her house and try to get it ready for sale down the road. Believe me, the woman saved everything. She threw away nothing. My shredder has grown obese eating and digesting a good portion of the old “paperwork” that resided in that house. I threw away over 500 pounds of newspapers that were never read. She would never let me throw them away. She would look at me and say, “…don’t you read books?” I replied, “Yes I do but newspapers are not books. Does it matter anymore about what happened on June 16th, 2002?” Like Jeff Dunham’s Peanut, whoosh, right over her head.
I found little memo pads that documented the minutia of her life. The toilet backed up and she found some senior citizen to do it from a job bank because it was free, or close to free. My aunt never wasted a penny. It snowed in January of 2003 and she recorded the snowfall, and how much she paid a neighbor to shovel. She had even broken it down as “…4 hours, with 30 minutes off for lunch.” So she paid him for three and a half hours’ work instead of four. I think she recorded in her journals every phone call she ever made.
It is so amazing what I have come across as I go through the things of her life. I found World War II ration books, many still filled with stamps. And speaking of stamps, I found some books of old S & H Green Stamps and even a lesser-known competitor called Plaid Stamps. You got these stamps when you bought groceries and you could redeem them at stores in the Green Stamp-type outlets in the 60s.
I discovered my grandfather’s immigration papers along with his U.S. Army discharge. I found his claim for workman’s comp in 1942, and I now know how much it cost to bury someone back then. But I also found letters. I even found an unrequited love letter that she received from a former neighbor who couldn’t get, “… the smell of [your] perfume out of my mind.” But she was not interested so she stayed single her whole life.
I found old pictures of the trips she took with her girlfriends—trips to the beach, trips to Canada, New York City, Inns in the Berkshires, the Penn-Dutch country and more. I saw pictures of her as a young woman, posing for the camera like a model in Life magazine. I saw her friends, my mother, even pictures of me around age four at the beach with her and my mom. I also discovered pictures of my three children as youngsters at various ages that I never knew she took. As I looked at the old photos, tiny negatives that used to be with them fell out. It’s been a long time since I had seen 110 camera negatives.
This has become difficult work. I think it is even more difficult than if my aunt had died and I was cleaning out her belongings. For that is exactly what I am doing—shredding the bills, receipts, and minutia that made up her life, yet she is still very much alive. I keep thinking,” My God, if she ever comes back and sees what has transpired, she will freak.” But of course, she is not going to come back. In fact, this cannot have a good end. At some point she will die. That sad little house she loved so much will have become history.
And this is why I refer to it as the Night of the Living Dead. She is there, yet not. Her imprint is there but the house is empty. She will no longer battle the local police who took away her license five years ago, or the Department of Motor Vehicles, whom she called every day. I know. I have read her little notes.
But it is really bittersweet. For while it makes me sad, it also reminds me of the way she was so long ago. Perhaps it is really us, the ones who know folks like her, or those who tried so hard to help her when things began to go south. As observers, it is so hard. But I prefer to think that in her head, my aunt is waiting for the next tennis court to open up so she can get in a brisk set or two. That is my aunt.