An Inside Look Where No One Wants to Look

July 4, 2020, marked the beginning of a new era in my life as I was nearing 80 years old. Covid was at its height when I was unceremoniously dropped off at Amica — a senior home facility in London, Ontario. Of course, the “unceremonious” drop-off was not how it was, but it felt like it! Neither my husband, feeling sad himself, nor my children were allowed to go in with me to help me get settled. As I sat in the dark lobby, waiting for the staff to ready my suite, I observed the many old people, most of them with walkers, and I felt saddened that I was now one of them. In truth, I felt fearful and devastated! I was totally unprepared mentally for what was now happening.

Even though I initiated and fully participated in the decision to come to Amica, I couldn’t shake the feeling I had been abandoned on that day. That feeling lingered for months, only made worse by being isolated by Covid in my tiny third-floor room, which had a terrible layout and faced one of the busiest, noisiest streets in London.

But that was three years ago. In my state of fear upon entering this facility, I could not have foreseen how this place would become my best teacher. My mental state was helped some when, about 18 months later, I was able to move to the sixth floor in a small room with a better layout, overlooking a green wooded parcel of land. That move and the passing of time have helped me to adjust to my circumstances. I now see my living here as a house of mirrors, where I see myself mirrored in many ways. But, most importantly, it has helped me to undergo a huge change of attitude in many positive ways!

Initially, we were all confined to our rooms and that did not make me feel exactly “at home.” All meals were brought by the personal support workers (PSWs), carefully masked. Since I requested additional assistance, they also came for 15 minutes twice a day and for two showers weekly. Those short interactions were like lifesavers for me as there was at least some human contact. After a few months, which seemed “forever,” the Ontario health department began to relax some of their Covid restrictions and we were allowed to go to the dining room and mingle carefully with other residents.

The experience of isolation, plus the later interactions with fellow diners, provided me with many teaching moments. The dining room has become my main venue for social interaction as we meet there daily for meals. (I skip breakfast, preferring to eat in my own room with my preferred food items purchased from local grocery stores.) The dining room is dressed up with tablecloths and flowers, and the servers are nicely attired. However, even though the dining room’s outward appearance is pleasing, mentally going there is much the same as meeting a bunch of high schoolers in the school cafeteria. Cliques are formed, gossip abounds, outward appearances are noticed (and commented on), and friendships (and yes, even romances) are formed. So, competition and jealousies are still there! I thought that many of these mental traits would have magically disappeared when we reach our 80s and 90s. But to my great surprise, I noticed that the teenage mind is still alive and well in these old bodies, including my own.

My dinner companions have taught me the most. During Covid we were first allowed to sit only with one person. My first dinner companion was an insurance executive who was also a gourmet cook. From him I learned a lot about food, more than I ever wanted to know. He was also a committed carnivore and always teased me about being vegetarian. But he also taught me how to ask the serving staff for what he wanted, while always being courteous and respectful!

After more of the Covid restrictions were lifted, we were allowed to sit with two or three persons, so my next dinner companions were two ladies who were well into their 90s. First, let me erase the image you may have already formed when I mention their ages. These two ladies were unlike any stereotype that I had ever formed. I will describe them, beginning with the youngest 99-year-old that I have ever met! She had been an executive secretary for a well-known industrialist. From her I learned forbearance and a “can do” attitude in all things. No matter how unwell she felt, she was always well-groomed and impeccably dressed. Unfortunately, this last year her legs have become completely unstable, causing her to fall many times. But she always gets back up! What I also admired about her was how correct she was in her table manners and habits. I will not forget the look on her face when she had to use a soup spoon instead of a coffee spoon to stir her coffee! She also has a phenomenal memory. But even though she always looked and followed correct etiquette her heart remained soft and tender. She often gave me good advice, such as “stop over-thinking and over-analyzing.” Because of her intense pride and sense of independence, it took many months to persuade her to accept some help from a personal support worker.

The other lady, also well into her 90s, had been a nurse and an artist, as well as raising four boys while moving from place to place all over the country every two years. Her nursing background often comes to the foreground as she wants to take care of everybody. Nothing escapes her sensitive, artistic, and well-developed eye. From her I learned to take the time to really see things and to slow down and speak more gently. She always wants to know more about whatever topic we talk about so she asks many questions. Therefore, I have also learned to be more informed when talking about any subject and to frequently admit that I do not know!

It is true that aging is not for sissies, but we still have a choice to become either bitter or better. So, one day I asked these ladies: what would be the best qualities to develop while living here. We came up with an acronym — PAL — “P” for patience, “A” for acceptance, and “L” for letting go. When one of us gets into the rabbit hole of negativity, we just say PAL! That snaps us quickly out of it!

Spending time with my dinner companions and getting to know them well has cured me completely from my stereotyping of seniors. Yes, some of us do decline cognitively but many of us do not! We are just young people who have progressed into the late stages of life. It is important, I feel, that we are treated as individuals, not to be lumped together into the typical stereotype that many people have of the elderly.

I’ve learned a whole lot from the staff, too — not only from the PSWs but from the dining room servers. First and foremost, from the chef I learned how to be more accommodating. She has the almost impossible task of cooking for 160 people, all of whom have different dietary concerns and well-developed eating habits with strong likes and dislikes. When I, a diehard vegetarian, arrived nearly three years ago, she also had now to deal with my needs. Every time she put a vegetarian dish on the menu, however, people would not choose it — it was so foreign to their usual diet. My seatmates have finally learned to pronounce quinoa (sounds like keen-waa) but because it is not familiar, hardly anyone orders it. I have learned from observing the people here that it is comfort food, not necessarily healthy food, that many prefer at this stage in their lives. Anyway, that is another discussion altogether. Dietitians must be having a hard time dealing with this.

The chef must also manage an extensive staff consisting mainly of young college students who, just like the PSWs, look a lot like the United Nations. Many of them come from foreign countries — the Philippines, India, Nepal, Japan, and various countries in Africa. The young people in those countries are steeped in old world cultural values, a principle one being respect for the elderly. The idea of putting their parents or grandparents in a home or institution is still very foreign to them. (Sadly, the Western influence is being felt more and more in some of these countries.) Many of the staff see us as their “grandparents.” I can quickly sense those who have the heart to do this very demanding and, at times, very unpleasant work of caring for old people. Then, I’ve observed others whose only interest is in having a job! The difference is easy to spot in their interactions with us.
Of course, most of these young people who serve here need a job badly. Many are foreign students who pay high tuition; some of them support their families back home so that they can live more comfortably. In addition, these young people often struggle to pay their bills, so life is not easy for them. When I was 14 years old, I was an immigrant myself, so I naturally empathize with them.

I have had many interactions with Amica’s young managers. From these interactions I have learned to be more compassionate. It didn’t take me long to discover that they are in an impossible situation, sandwiched between the wellbeing of the corporation (i.e., profits) and the wellbeing of the residents. This taught me to be kindlier when writing my emails to them when the inevitable problems keep popping up and are not attended to as quickly as I would like.

Summing up: I came here with fear and an attitude of “woe is me.” But now I have turned that feeling towards a feeling of gratitude. I have much to be grateful for: a husband who supports me in every way possible — physically, mentally, and spiritually! — and my other family members who continue to stand by me in so many ways! I’m grateful for newly formed friendships, mostly with people less than half my age. Everyone is precious and I count my blessings every day for having them in my life!

In a recent interview, Michael J. Fox was asked how he was able to live with Parkinson’s for so long. He said: “With gratitude, optimism is sustainable.” That is how it is for me! I don’t know how long I may have on this earthly plane, but as long as I remain here, I will attempt to make my mind quiet, alert, and beautiful, because it is the only “thing” I can take with me! As Denzel Washington once said, “You will never see a U-Haul attached to a hearse.”

Margaret Dukes