If my mom were aware, I know she’d talk to all the “old people” here at Golden Age. If she still had her wits, she wouldn’t think of herself as old, and for sure, she’s much younger than many of the residents. I do what my mom would do. Over the next week I learn the names of the rest of the residents and pay attention to their quirks.
Bernie spends most of her time in the community livingroom asleep in a recliner with her shoes and socks off. The one time I see her at mealtime, she puts her head down on the table and cries. Frank has a shock of white hair that’s always sticking up, rooster-style. He doesn’t respond when I speak to him, but he says “Wow” each time a fresh brownie or cookie is served for dessert. Harvey smokes Larks from his wheelchair in front of the building. He gets an orange pop occasionally, too, but it’s only cigarettes the staff use as bribes for cleaning his plate or for being nice. One day he tells everyone his dad worked on the railroad and his ma was a whore. In the evening he lays on a love seat in the livingroom with his head covered in a blanket, dozing while the old women watch their TV shows. I’d guess from his forearms that he used to be a weightlifter, or, in the least, he made money betting on his arm wrestling skills.
Eleanor is one of the oldest residents, but she can still have a conversation. When I ask what she likes to do, she tells me she plays cards but she forgot which game is her favorite. Sandy, the youngster here at seventy or so, nibbles her lips constantly. She loves to fold and does it compulsively: Afghans, towels, bedspreads, dirty paper napkins from dinner. When I walk past her room, I see that her name placard on her door has been folded into a tiny square, unfolded and taped back on the door. The fold marks remain.
Each time I visit, Delores calls out, “When are we gonna get something to eat around here?” The staff are patient with her. One or the other CNA responds, “You just ate” or “You’ll get something soon.” The irony is that when Delores sits in front of a full plate of food, she says, “What am I supposed to do with this?” She chews her food but doesn’t know to swallow it without much coaxing from a staff member. She is bone thin and her one remaining tooth, bottom left, makes chewing difficult. Each time I look in her general direction a pang of sadness hits me.
Today she says, “When is somebody coming to get me?”
“Not today,” a CNA says. “You’re stuck with us for today.” She smiles in Delores’s direction. The words are always the same—Not today or Maybe later—but depending on the staff member, the tone or disposition changes. Delores is oblivious. She just keeps asking. “Is somebody coming to get me?”
I know she’s been here a long time. There’s a picture collage of residents hanging on one wall, photos from a Christmas years ago. Near each picture, written in magic marker, is a quote floating out of each resident’s mouth. Can I have a brandy? Or When’s lunch? Or Got any cookies? Lines these poor folks must say over and over to the staff—their entire lives diminished to one often repeated phrase. Delores’s line on the collage: Is somebody coming to get me? She has been asking this every day, many times a day, for many years.
Delores says pitifully, “May I go back to my room now?”
She stands up, holds on to her walker, and heads toward her room.
“Which one is mine?” she asks no one in particular.
Mom’s first night at Golden Age, when I desperately wanted to feel good about her staying here, I asked Eleanor for the names of everyone gathered around the TV in recliners. She giggled when I tried to repeat after her and got the names of the residents so, so wrong. Delores yelled in my direction, “What the hell kind of game are we playing here?” Nervous and sad, I burst out laughing. She shot me a hurt look. I know she has long forgotten that night, but I have not.