Posts for Category: The Basic Goodness of Aging

Breakfast, a Book and a Broken Heart

Once upon a dream“I just want a little bowl of cereal for breakfast,” an old woman says as she sits down at her breakfast table.  She forgets, though, to let you know what goes with her cereal.

Next to her little bowl of cereal sits a yellow tote bag.  In the bag are her medications:  heart pills, liver pills, eye drops, water pills, acidophilus, stool softeners, muscle relaxers, spiralina, pancreatin as well as blood pills, gas pills, hormone pills, vitamins, and supplements.  Next to the yellow bag, moving counterclockwise, is a tray shaped like a fish.  It holds soy sauce, ’cause she can’t use salt, goat’s milk ’cause she can’t eat regular dairy, and a tub of diet margarine since she can’t eat butter but needs something on her cereal.

Don’t just plop the cereal bowl down on her good wooden table. First, put down a place mat, then a tray, then a plate under the bowl.  What might happen if crumbs fall off the plate into the cracks of the place mat?  If toast crumbs get away, who knows what might get lost next?

Directly in front of the bowl and a little to the right, almost touching the knife, is a glass of cold water that comes from the filtered water pitcher in the refrigerator.  The water is too cold for swallowing pills, so put in a splash of hot water from the tea kettle whistling on the stove.

Slightly to the left of the glass of cold water is a mug of freshly boiled water.  Lying beside the mug is a tea bag. Don’t put the bag in the water in the kitchen.  Bring it to the table first, or the tea will get too strong.

You don’t want this dear old woman to get the jitters.

Right behind the glass and cup, directly in front of the mat with the tray, the plate and the bowl is a plastic Tupperware box.  Inside the box are 6 jars.  These are the ground up seeds and nuts that make cereal nourishing and make it taste better when you can’t have dairy and sugar.

Behind the box with the jars of seeds and nuts is a nice tall jar filled to the brim with plump dates.  A long pair of scissors lies on the table with the sharp blades pointed toward the fruit.

Coming on around, still going counter clockwise, is a little stand to hold the morning newspaper or a book, depending on whether it is a day for light or serious literature.  Next to the reading material are two extra pairs of glasses and a magnifying glass pointing toward the napkin that has only been used twice, so why throw it away?

Hidden behind the stand that holds the reading material is a bowl of brown sugar and a jar of honey in case she can’t stop herself from having something sweet.  And in the background, from the public radio station, the low wail of “Your Cheating Heart, You Made Me Cry,” as the hour slides into the morning headline news.

What courage and sadness lurk in this small woman with her breakfast and book and broken heart?   Is she all of us who ever wanted something: a bowl of cereal, a lasting love, a well-lived life where wants, transformed into longing, become fuel propelling us on?



A Watchman, a Spy, and the Wisdom of an Elder

Spying is big these days. Bigger than looking for wisdom. But in my work with older people, I often get to do both. As Bob Atchley tells us, “ordinary sages” are all around. And this opportunity to find one came when I was asked by a daughter to find out what was bothering her father, Sam. He suffered from Alzheimer’s, was a widower who had left his home in another state for a mostly-Jewish assisted living facility near his daughter.  She asked me to take him to buy some new slippers.  Sam told me right away that he didn’t need new slippers.  What he wanted me to do was to read him an article called “FLP’S Flop with the IRS” which was about leaving your assets to family in a proper way before you die.  But after I finished reading, he agreed to go out to shop for house shoes.

As we entered Rite Aid, Sam went up to a young clerk and asked him, “Are you in the shoe business?”  The young clerk blinked his eyes but recovered quickly. “Yes sir, we have a few at the back of the store.” And he pointed the way.   At the Wellness center Sam engaged a young woman, “So you have shoes?”  “Just around the corner,” she assured him.  Rack after rack of cheap and furry foot coverings.  “These would be great if we had snow on the ground,” Sam said as he reached for a pair shaped like boots for Genghis Khan. And predictably, none of the slippers was quite right, so we went back to the assisted living for lunch.

On this “watchman” day, I joined Sam at a table for six, noticing that he especially liked a small, active woman who sang.  This morning I had seen her in the lobby singing to people who were coming in and going out.  But it wasn’t the  singing that Sam liked; he liked her because she needed help opening packages of crackers and getting lids off creamers.  Sam was very tender as he helped her and got her to stir her coffee.

The luncheon choice that day was vegetable lasagna or herb-crusted pollock.  I ordered the pollock. “What did you say?” the little woman asked me.  “Pollock, white fish” I answered. “Oh,” she told me.  “I thought you said that you wanted a Polack for lunch.”  “My husband was a Polack,” she told me, “but I am a Russian.”  She told us how she had come here at the age of seven to this place where Jews gather from all over the world. “I had a big family, two brothers and five sisters.”

Here my client stopped her and said, “That interests me.  You have a big family, and they can live with you until they grow up, and then they are booted out.”  Sam spoke with passion. My mind stopped as the conversation moved on.  Did Sam feel that he had been booted out of the family into a nursing home?

Two subjects interested Sam.  Both had to do with family: the unfairness of  getting booted out of the family.   And worry about his assets. (Suddenly I remembered my own grandmother telling me that her boys just wanted to get her money and put her in an old folk’s home, which wasn’t true but a fear none the less.)

Sam had some fears and feelings that needed processing, not easy if you have dementia. How could his worry be expressed and received?  But this little singing woman did receive Sam’s offering of his concern.

“No!” she said.  “When people grow and it is time to move on, it’s okay for them to go.”

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Ann Cason

Ann Cason,
Geriatric Consultant

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