A recent article in the New York Times, "Mean Girls in the Retirement Home" got me thinking about my dad. Author Jennifer Weiner tells about her 97-year-old grandmother in a new senior residence being snubbed by the mean octogenarian women who put purses on chairs --"This seat is taken"-- and in other ways don't let the newcomers in--not to dinner tables, bridge games, or conversations. Weiner, like me and many of us clueless relatives of the elderly, are surprised by the petty social interactions that go on. Here is the boy's side.
When my now 90-year-old dad moved into Assisted Living four years ago, we were impressed by the dining room, a high-windowed, sunlit space with pale yellow walls and lots of bright white trim. Residents sit at tables of four while a staff serves a good variety of homestyle cooking. My dad, an excellent cook of big church dinners and family brunches, loves the food there.
A relative explained to me that seats were assigned in the dining room-- perhaps to avoid the kind of meanness Weiner is talking about-- and that my dad was so fortunate to be sitting with John So-and-so, a retired judge.
We were invited to eat with Dad any time we wanted, at a separate table they would set up, but there was an empty space at his table, so one day early on, I asked if I could sit there with Dad and two other men. As soon as I std down, the man on his left said, "So what are you, his daughter?" "Yes," I smiled sweetly. "Well, I don't much like the looks of your face," he said. "And I don't like his either." I was stunned by the vehemence with which he pronounced this. A lot of these old guys josh gruffly, but he was not joshing, nor was he in several rude exchanges that followed with the cook, a woman in her 70s who approached the table to serve him. He snarled at her and said something very rude to her. She responded by laughing, "Oh John, you are such a kidder." I looked at her. He was not kidding. She offered to make him a hamburg, which he lived on, finding nothing else from the kitchen "suitable."
When I asked my father about him, my dad said, "I got so mad at how he treats those women who wait on us, I nearly stood up and punched him, but the other guy at the table calmed me down and said, 'Russ, he ain't worth it.'"
So this was the judge my father was so fortunate to be sitting with. Soon the judge took to eating in his room and then died, so my father was spared the abuse, but I noticed that the judge has often been replaced by some man just as mean as him. I don't know if Dad gets assigned these bullies because my dad is such a cheerful fellow. (Asked how he is today, he always always responds, "Wonderful.") Or maybe one in four men are bullies. I remember one day seeing a sign in front of a resident at another table, a man seated with three women. It said: "I will keep my hands to myself. I will not use insulting language. I will not discuss sex." Within days, he had been moved to my dad's table, and within weeks, he was gone.
Then this past year, when I sat down to lunch at Dad's table with Dad, Neal (a member of Dad's church), and a third man, the third launched into me, very much like John the Judge had, with insults. I ignored him, as Neal and Dad were forced to do, as he made one rude comment after another, about me, about Dad.
Not too long after that, I was called because my father had just had an altercation with a man in the residence. No one had actually seen it, but the other man was found with his wheelchair on its back on the floor, with him in it on his back, like an insect who can't turn over. My dad's story was that he was trying to get out of the dining room (in a hurry to get to the bathroom as his room is the second farthest away from the dining room) and the man was blocking the doorway. He asked the man to move, and the man cursed him, and so, said Dad, "I put him down so I could get around." I was shocked and said that wasn't very nice, didn't he think that was being a bully? "No," my dad said, "I didn't think it was very nice for him to curse at me." The nurse said to me, "Your dad doesn't understand what he did. He can't help it." Then she said sweetly, "Russ, why would you do that to Gene? You know Gene is your friend."
No one believed my dad, not even I. It was hard to believe-- until two days later, we were walking down the hall together and a man had his wheelchair parked at a 45 degree angle so no one could get around him. We waited and asked him to move. He turned his head, looked right at me, and nothing happened. As I squeezed past, I noticed the man was smirking and saying, "heheheh." My portly dad could not get past, so I moved the chair sideways a bit, but I have to admit, it was tempting to put it down and step over it. As soon as we managed to get past, he wheeled quickly away in the opposite direction, still chuckling.
This was Gene, the man my father had had to endure for 3 hours a day seven days a week while he ate. I re-imagined the previous incident with Gene, now that I knew who he was: my dad having had to listen to him growl and snipe for an hour, leaving with a need to go to the bathroom, and blocked by this laughing hyena.
Suddenly, I felt more sympathy for my father. He comes from a long line of working men who, even if they didn't like each other, got along and joked but did not disrespect each other. The disrespect he has had to stand for -- or sit for-- daily is trying. And I realized that if the scene with Gene had been a movie, at the point Dad placed the wheelchair on its back, there would have been hoots, cheers and applause. In real life, he has just been docked 20 points on the scale of care needed and is being billing $500 a month more.That's how they tend to handle things lately in his Assisted Living.
Until you spend time in the hallways and rooms of senior residents, you may not have any sense of what your elderly friends are going through. So many adult children park their parents in these places and stop in once a month for ten minutes. I suggest you come in oftener, sit down, and listen.