Cloud Nine

June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Is there a way out of the labyrinth of rules and conditions to access public benefits like supportive housing or home care aides? Lori, a tiny 80-year old woman with a ruby-red raincoat matched by a shiny red lipstick, grey slacks and orthopaedic white shoes, set herself free from the maze.  “I am on cloud nine”, she says with trepidation soon after the usual greetings.

One week earlier, over the phone, her voice suggested meeting in a library; an encounter in her apartment was out of question. Now, in a quiet meeting room, the raincoat still draped over her shoulders, her sharp, and somewhat sad dark eyes reach me from behind the thick lenses of her eyeglasses. Lori’s speech is erratic, interspersed with pauses; her train of thought sometimes extraordinarily well organized, other times drifting away.

Divorced, with osteoarthritis and knees that “are just bones”, independence is “very important” to her. Her friends are out of reach:

After they either got dementia or died I started to feel that hole, you know. I couldn’t just call up and say ‘Hey, did you hear about this?, and what are you doing tomorrow?”

Lori dreads depending on her only surviving son who lives in another state. Her daughter died eleven years ago; talking about her is impossible: “I don’t want to get personal now”.

The several moves to follow her husband’s career did not allow her to cultivate an attachment to her apartment or to her neighbourhood.  A few years ago, strategically planning for her future, Lori became a volunteer officer to inspect the quality of nursing homes. As soon as she found one that met her expectations, she started volunteering there to increase her chances of admission. The detailed account all the papers and credential assembled in the application reminds me of my green card application: “I brought my folder of certificates from the city, and the things that I’ve done, and the traveling that I’ve done, and the newspaper articles, and that was impressive.”

The day before our meeting, Lori received a phone call telling her about her admission: “I’ve been chosen,” she says.  She is so glad that soon she will finally stop cooking and buying groceries. Being able to “have someone to hold my hand” has become increasingly valuable to her.

Does this mean that living in a nursing home is the antidote to the struggles of living alone in older age in urban America? Maybe, especially if the nursing home has high standards. It also leads to the sobering contention that institutionalization and segregation by age are some of the few options older solo dwellers have left.

This story appeared in the July 2011 issue of the newsletter of Planning for Elders in the Central City. The contribution was funded by the UCSF Community Partnership Fund.

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