Old age is not for sissies

Talking to my mother lately, she can be surprised by her couch.

I’ll tell her that her apartment in assisted living is fixed up like her house, with her couch. She’ll look down and say with a startle in her voice, “Yes, that is my couch. How did it get here?” 

My response is nearly always the same. I tell her my sister and brother-in-law brought it there, carrying it above their shoulders as they roller-skated down the highway. 

Sometimes she laughs, realizing it’s a joke. 

If so, I go on to inventory other things of hers in her apartment — her coffee table, a statue she and my dad bought, photographs of people she loves, tchotchkes that graced the kitchen where she used to prepare meals and welcome guests.

Other times, she’s not sure if I’m joking about how the couch arrived, and then I feel bad, as if I was trying to fool her.

The truth is that my mom couldn’t stay in her home anymore. It wasn’t safe for a person of her age and condition. For you see, she has Alzheimer’s Disease and, while she recognizes her family and remembers a fair amount, her short-term memory isn’t good and she needed more care. 

This transition had to be made and makes a lot of things work better for my mom and our family, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Still, my mom tells us that she is meeting people and some are nice. 

She also says, “Well, old age is not for not sissies. Someone said that, do you know who?” And we’ll know because we’ve heard this for years, starting before her memory started to go. 

Another truth is that we are lucky to have had my mother all these years in good health.

And we are lucky because she is in a safe place that, for now, we can afford.

A photographer captures the sunrise behind the New York City skyline from across the Hudson River in Jersey City, New Jersey. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

My mother had the advantages of having a union job with a pension and a spouse with the same good benefits. My parents were teachers in the New York City School System, a huge enterprise that has nearly as many students to educate as people who live in Maine. My dad, a shop steward, has been gone for decades, but my mom is still helped by a share of his pension as well as hers. 

She also has her own Social Security and a survivors’ benefit, due to one of the most successful and popular government programs in the United States. 

But besides the pensions and Social Security and savings, my parents also bought long-term care insurance, and that’s been a big help.

Most Americans don’t have pensions and they don’t have long-term care insurance either. Medicare, an excellent program in many ways, doesn’t cover long-term care in assisted living or nursing home facilities. Medicaid does, but people need to spend down their assets before they qualify. 

In Maine, as the large elderly population continues to grow, nursing homes are having trouble finding people to work in them. 

The country as a whole is aging and the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies keep out younger people the country could use to work and pay into Social Security. Xenophobia has made a comeback, more strident than ever.

Indeed, the wondrous world my mother traveled has changed across her long life. 

My family knows her old stories and we love to hear them, something still possible because most longer ago memories are intact. 

And my mom also loves to remember the literature she taught, recalling Shakespeare’s lines and talking about the life of Virginia Wolff. 

My mother could quote the poet Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Now there is no rage, but the glow of memories and the continued curiosity of a person with a well-lived life. Just sometimes that inquisitiveness is about how her couch got to her new living room.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.