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I Relate More to My Elderly Neighbors Than to People My Own Age

Whenever people asked me what that first MS attack felt like, I was frustrated and at a loss. I threw out words such as fatigue and weakness only to hear them say they feel the same things, what’s the big deal? But one day a woman gave me feedback that I’ve repeated many times over all these years since: It’s kind of like getting very old all of a sudden.

Suddenly aging

It is! Now I tell people it was like suddenly aging from 41 to 90 overnight. Of course I had no idea what 90 feels like back then. And heck, at age 60, I still don’t know. But there is one thing that is different now. I live in a senior community full of 90-year-olds, so I’m gaining a better understanding of why that ageing analogy is a pretty accurate one.

I just adore my neighbors. Most of them are widows living alone with the exception of a married couple in their 9th decade of life, and one single man living next door to me: my 64-year-old brother.

Getting to know my neighbors

Ann is 98 but doesn’t look it, probably from a combination of having good genes and a history of competitive ballroom dancing. Sweet and polite, Ann has declined since she moved in two years ago. She has to use a walker now and lately, her brain is cranking out some hilarious delusions. After my brother moved in next door to me, Ann insisted he was sharing the apartment with a short, fat guy with no beard. (My brother is 6’3” and has a close-cropped gray beard.) “I see him go in and out of your brother’s apartment a lot,” she elaborated. “It’s me you’re seeing,” I told her, “I’m the short fat guy with no beard.” She looked me up and down with pursed lips and said nothing. I don’t think she was convinced.

Rose, a charming and feisty Italian woman who knows everything about everybody, just turned 89. She doesn’t drive anymore. She has an older sister who is 95 that still drives and is completely independent. During the past year Rose has lost 40 pounds from a digestive problem her docs can’t pinpoint. She tries to explain about vomiting after eating and that one doc thinks it’s a thyroid issue. She’s lost so much weight that her dentures don’t fit anymore and she leaves them in a cup, preferring to speak with a toothless lisp. She isn’t the only neighbor here who can’t wear their teeth for one reason or another.

Helping each other

Money is one issue. We are all poor here. My neighbors help each other in beautiful ways, and I only know this because some of them tell me what’s going on. The help is quiet and invisible, there are no showboats among the old. Help is there when needed. There’s an unspoken understanding that nobody wants to be a burden to their children, so people chip in to at least help maintain the ailing person's dignity by cleaning a bathroom or a kitchen, or picking up medications, or groceries. It creates some illusion of independence for as long as possible. Nobody wants to lose that.

I’ve seen two neighbors develop dementia to the point where they are suddenly “disappeared” and their kids spirit them away to a nursing home. It is a fate everyone fears. It’s not that the old ones are waiting for the ax to fall. Not consciously anyway. Many are cheery and upbeat despite feeling anxious or in pain. It softens the fatefulness that hangs heavy in these hallways. Our uncertain futures are too scary to really think about. But repressed fear eventually makes its way into our minds and behaviors. Perhaps that is why my neighbor Betty has been suffering from anxiety.

Worrying about each other

I stopped Betty in the hallway the other day and told her how beautiful she looked, decked out in nice jewelry, a new haircut and a lavender outfit that illuminated her blue eyes. She told me she needed to hear that today so much and began to cry, apologizing for her emotionalism. She explained that it just comes over her suddenly. I asked if she’s told her doctor, maybe medication would help. “Oh yes, I’m taking some new drug but it isn’t working very well.” “I hope you’ll call your doc,” I repeated, my advocate brain kicking in. “You might just need a dose adjustment.” She smiled. “I will,” she promised, and disappeared inside her apartment. I couldn’t tell whether she just said that so I wouldn’t worry. I hope she called her doc, but I’ll worry about her regardless. She spends a lot of time alone in her apartment. That is her choice.

Nobody has to be alone

Here, nobody has to be alone if they don’t want to be. They congregate in the common area and often wander the halls very late at night. Insomnia shortens their sleep. Late one night, struggling with my own unquiet brain, I got out of bed and made my way to the common area. Five neighbors appeared from each of the wings, ghostlike in their white hair and long robes. “Is there a full moon or something?” I joked. “Oh, we do this a lot,” said Jan. “There’s always somebody walking around at all hours.”

So many restless, unquiet minds among the elderly. So many among people with MS, too. I’m sharing these stories with you to illustrate how much we have in common with people whose bodies have been wearing out slowly over a lot more years than we have lived. But it isn’t a downer for me at all, living among the elderly.

Learning, loving, and understanding

Months before I moved here, I lost my mother to lung cancer. We were very close. It’s been comforting to live close to women who are my mother’s age. In a way, it feels redemptive. I harbor a lot of guilt and regret for being insensitive and clueless towards both my parents as they aged. I just didn’t know. But I’m learning. By listening to, hugging, and supporting my neighbors, I hold the images of my parents in my mind and, by proxy, I give them the love and understanding I didn’t give when they were living.

It isn’t quite the same thing. But it helps.

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