Let me preface this by saying that I do not think 64 is old at all, lest I receive angry phone calls from my parents. I’m sure if The Beatles were to write that song today, they’d adjust the age to be 84, maybe 94? After all, the life expectancy has raised almost 10 years since 1967 when that song was written.
Growing up, I knew my mom was a nurse, specifically a rehab nurse, but I didn’t quite know what that meant. What I did know is that she worked in a nursing home and there were a handful of times when my brother and I visited there. We’d meander through the building and poke our noses into some of the rooms or wave to those residents sitting in the halls. Everyone was always overjoyed at seeing two little kids. Some would give us pieces of candy, others would mistake us for their own grandchildren and call us strange names.
I became accustomed to old people and that distinctive nursing home smell. It didn’t bother me, though it unnerved others. Whereas some tread hesitantly, I was nothing but comfortable in their presence.
To fulfill service hours in high school, volunteering at the local nursing home seemed like a natural choice. I helped with activities for these residents: leading Bingo games, reading stories from Chicken Soup for the Soul, watching movies, painting nails or parcelling out snacks. I’d listen to their stories – and such stories they had to tell! I marveled at the lives they’d led and the experiences they’d had.
Joe was a regular on manicure day and had no shame about pampering himself, even as a man. He’d once been a bartender and always believed it was important to be well-groomed, especially if you were serving the public. He’d leave the community room with a clear coat of polish on those days. Or there was Frances who would grasp my hands and swing them back and forth singing, “you are my sunshine, you are my sunshine.” Esther told me about living in Austria during the war and Hilda lovingly shared the accomplishments of her children and grandchildren.
Even those whose memories were elsewhere and past the point of verbal speech would still grab hold of my arm or hand and gaze longingly into my eyes. That was always enough. Those moments took my breath away and made me blink back tears.
All of these dear people in full mental capacity or same variation of its loss were just searching for connection. To know that someone still cares.
On family days, I’d always wait with bated breath, praying that everyone received visitors. I’d struggle to understand how anyone could just forget about their relatives living here and I’d try to fill in the gap when I’d see one of my activity regulars sitting alone.
I worry about my elderly loved ones today who struggle with their health and loneliness, a feeling that any of us can empathize with, no matter our age. I worry about the days when they are no longer in my life and think about all that I’ve learned from them. I chastised myself on Monday for not regularly calling my grandma who always took me shopping when I was little, was home waiting for me after school with paczkis on Fat Tuesday, knitted me scarves, hats and leg warmers, attended my dance recitals, and shared her joy of jigsaw puzzles with me. I don’t call because I worry about her which is a ridiculous reason not to call and I worry about the day when I won’t be able to call her. I was fortunate enough to know two great-grandmas, two grandpas and two grandmas…and now this grandma, my Grammie, is the only one still here.
I hope that when I’m 64, 74, 84, 94 or even 104 that I keep living, loving and fighting. I admire 90-something year old Irene who despite being blind, ran errands and kept such a busy schedule the planners for her birthday party couldn’t keep it a surprise as intended. They had to tell Irene about it, just to find a date she was free and could attend. Or 80 plus year old Helen who had once been a nun but told fantastic, dirty jokes. Or my Polish great-aunts who kept dancing well into their 90s.
Yes, sometimes I think about the creases that don’t completely fade on my forehead or the faint lines on my face. Those will all likely deepen by the time I’m 64. New wrinkles and more lines will appear. But I’ll wear each one proudly, Botox be damned. And I’m going to call my grandma.