I am now two years into the category that sociologists call “The Very Old.” I’m not a sociologist, but if I had a vote, I’d opt for the more realistic “Extremely Old,” with its suggestive echoes of Extremadura, what the Spaniards call the hard lands to their west, the “Cruel Frontier.” I can be a little frivolous about the name since I don’t feel very much at home in the category, and that’s because I now live surrounded by strikingly authentic exemplars of the Very Old.
The Very Very Old (my own invented category) are next door in the Nursing Home, but here in Assisted Living the residents are judged capable, to a degree, of taking care of themselves; the “assistance” takes the form of providing meals, dispensing medication and performing the ordinary housekeeping tasks one might find in a nice *** hotel. The (for the most part) gentle nonagenarians and centenarians who are now my life companions are, many of them, legally blind and most of them are quite deaf. They get about with walkers or in wheelchairs. Most sit silent at meals, the major social contacts of the day, and those who do speak never speak of anything going on outside these gates, nothing, that is, except the comings and goings of their (startlingly old) children, multiple grandchildren and a category I never much thought about, their great-grandchildren.
It’s not that I’m wiser or luckier than my fellow residents; I’m sure I’ll be in their slippers one day. It’s just that –if I might say it straight out— I don’t feel that old. Myself, the eyes still work with glasses and the ears with and even without hearing aids. I get about, in low gear to be sure, but without support, and I am (unfortunately) aware of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the New York Mets, the Kardashians and, I can’t help myself, reviews of new restaurants in Manhattan that I will never visit. The silliness of that latter is compounded by the fact that I, who now live in Schenectady, where the best restaurant is a Greek diner, still scorn to read the New York Times reviews of restaurants opening in Brooklyn or Queens.
While some of my fellow residents look like they might be failing –like flowers, they begin to droop— they don’t display the symptoms of the ill health that condemned them to a wheelchair or walker and now necessitates the tsunami of pills that are dispensed in these halls morning, noon and night. I get my share of pills, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure I don’t appear to be failing, not at least by the local standards; the hard fact is, however, that I am here in an upstate Assisted Living Residence and not on Third Avenue in New York City. Not only am I categorically Very Old; I also need Assistance. But, as with the others, my ill health -–prostate cancer and COPD— is hidden from sight: only my oncologist knows my PSA number (now lower than low) and only my pulmonologist is aware of the degree of my shortness of breath. I feel I could go on this way forever
That thought, however ill-founded, is bracing. Or was. My fellows are oddly reticent about their age, at least until they reach one hundred. But the resident known as Bingo Mary –the place is crawling with Marys; this one was a bingo pro– chanced to say that she was 91and, oh yes, had been in residence for ten years. My first nine months had passed quickly, but ten years! It was unimaginable. I had always unconsciously assumed, on no grounds whatsoever, that I was just passing through here, that one day I would return to Windsor Court, its porte cochère, its complaisant concierges –“Will you reserve dinner for two at MarcoNY?” —its gym and its view of the Chrysler Building, and pick up where I had left off. The pop you just heard was that balloon being punctured. Where I “left off” was in the grip of double pneumonia: I could barely crawl into the bathroom and spent the night peeing into a Tropicana bottle. My ticket to Assisted Living had been punched.
Trouble is, I recovered. The travails of illness are now behind me. I enjoy the ease and carelessness that comes with the new “assistance,” but I’m pretty sure I could get along without it, maybe even make it to that dinner reservation. But not forever and not for long. Very Old is the world’s slipperiest slope, and it’s inevitably headed downward. I look across the table at one hundred and one year-old Sanctifying Grace, the unbearably sweet lady who discharges blessings like confetti on all who pass, and I wonder what I’ll be shouting (or snarling or incoherently muttering) at that age; or Easy Eddie across the dining room cackling in his wheelchair. How far off it that? Will I, unlike Eddie, still have my precious hair? My marbles? Will I shake? When will I fall? Will I break my hip on the first or the second or the third tumble? No need to imagine my future. It is now all around me in vivid tableau.
But like an uncertain pitcher (a crafty left hander), I shake off the sign. I’ll step off that slope if you don’t mind and dally for a few moons back among the congenial merely “Old” (74-84) -–the “Young Old” (65-74) are beyond even my imaginative grasp— have a few drinks, tell a few stories in a normal voice and, if I’m up to it, flirt a spell with the waitress who appears to be –wait a sec till I put on my glasses—in “Middle Adulthood.”
In the end the Spaniards chose to settle in Extremadura and make something of it. I appear to have no choice.