V. David Sedaris Would Love This Place

In 2013, I moved to a 55+ apartment community. It didn’t take long for me to see this place as a microcosm of humanity, a gold mine of quirky tales and the struggles of nice people caught in the vortex of time. Aging is, after all, not for the faint hearted.

My writing itch went wild with each new interaction and I was struck by both the sad and funny elements to their stories. I knew I had to write.

In order to honor the privacy of the residents and still tell the story, I compiled their many personalities into one persona: Maxine, of greeting card fame. Since no one named Maxine lives in the building, I’m sure no one with take my observations personally.

I was attracted to this type of setting as a way of adjusting to my new retirement status without being completely alone. There are one hundred apartments and the oldest resident is 103. Longest residency is 27 years. A ninety-nine year old resident runs the exercise program that meets in the building once a week. I kid that I’ve found a place I can age into. But that’s hardly a joke.

This facility recently was opened to all ages. “Intergenerational” says the sign outside. While I thought this made for a richer environment, it seems catastrophic for many of the long standing residents. Administration assures them services for seniors won’t be affected. But there’s skepticism.

The young renters are mostly students from a nearby professional school. One Maxine frets that she no longer feels safe doing her daily walk throughout the building. Another Maxine says she no longer feels comfortable coming to the coffee shop. So, let’s get this straight. These advanced degree students who do nothing but study and work are dangerous riff-raff? Whenever the topic arises, I say I moved here because it was for all ages. Funny how that subject no longer comes up when I’m around.

There was a recent theft from the locked exercise room and certainty the “new people” are to blame. Ignore the fact that many relatives and friends visit and that it’s quite easy to have duplicate keys made. Also, ignore the fact that there’d been a theft before the change. This does little to alter opinions. For sure. it’s those new, young people.

The religious fervor of the residents is quite intense. Catholic guilt reigns supreme and while it’s nice that people are so charitable, this doesn’t lead to close relationships. A different opinion is a sacrilege. I’m hesitant to talk about my rather unorthodox belief system. Of this I remain mum.

Activities are optional and being new in the building with a relatively empty schedule, I saw a way to meet people and occupy my time; so, I jumped in and attended any and all of them with mixed results.

The weekly “current events” meeting looked interesting. I went to the community room and found five or six other residents there. I also found the line-up of walkers that always occupies the edge of the room during any gathering. The activity coordinator runs a video that highlights current news stories of the week. She has to loudly repeat everything on the video for the hearing impaired. No discussion encouraged. None attempted. Half the room nodding off. I felt like I was on the memory impaired unit of a nursing home. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Bingo was another chance to be with people. The hearing impaired make it necessary to repeat the calls, ever louder. “Was that N 32?” “No, it was G 42.” An eerie echo resonates as the caller’s numbers are repeated in a sing song fashion at each table. “B6 .” “B6.” “B6.”

Assigned seating is set in stone. One night, a new resident in a wheel chair approached an empty seat only to be told it belonged to a Maxine, who was clearly absent that night. So, she headed toward another empty spot. Though that Maxine wasn’t present either, she was told she couldn’t sit there.

I commented that it was already past 7:00 and Maxine obviously wasn’t coming. After a whispered discussion, the woman was grudgingly allowed a place at the table. Not one word was spoken to her the entire evening. That seemed a mean thing for these good Christian’s to do. That woman in the wheel chair hasn’t come to bingo again. Neither have I.

Two nights a week there’s a catered dinner in the dining room and I’ve appreciated this chance to socialize at a meal. Added bonus is not having to cook! Again, assigned seating. Over time, I’ve been able to find some like-minded folks and we’ve been seated together. But occasionally friends aren’t there and I’m seated with a challenging conversationalist. Sometimes, a non-conversationalist. Seated alone with one particular Maxine, a sports enthusiast, was particularly challenging. In my feeble attempt to be sociable, I was ready to talk sports though I’m not a fan.

“So, Maxine, what do you think of the current concern about concussions in football?”

“Oh, I don’t know anything about that. I’m just interested in the score.” Silence. Clanking of silverware. Rustling of napkins.

“Well, Maxine, what are your thoughts on the recent issue of bullying in the locker room?”

“I don’t know about that. I’monly interested in watching the game.” Slience. Clanking of silverware. Rustling of napkins.

“Maxine, would you like me to pour you some coffee?”

“No.”

This Maxine, with so little to say, is an aberration in the Downton Abbey atmosphere of my new home where dirty laundry is hung out for all to see. A small group meets almost nightly and became known as the “wino’s” since they’ve been known to bring a bottle of wine. I found out first hand that they only gossiped and didn’t want to be part of that. After all, l’ll be the subject of similar talk when I’m not present.

One Maxine is certain administration is ignoring the wait list, giving the limited indoor parking spots to the new people. I was that new person and she said this while I was present as though I wasn’t even there. I checked with administration and was filled in on this difficult person’s history. Even administration has no boundaries.

Maxine, the volunteer librarian, doesn’t get rid of old and worn books because donors might be hurt if they see their books are no longer on the shelf. Another Maxine complains bitterly about the prices in the in-house general store. I get it that since she’s on oxygen, hard of hearing and needs a walker, her rant is about much more than the price of cookies. A middle aged Maxine is sure various men in the building are hitting on her. I guess I live on the Love Boat!

It didn’t  take me long to figure out that I’d moved from one small town to another. Many residents had lived in Wauwatosa their entire lives, in the one or two houses of their long marriages. When becoming widows they moved to this facility. Two Maxine’s have been friends since kindergarten. Another Maxine welcomed to this facility a member of her fifty year ago wedding party.

I’m surrounded by the women’s club belonging, choir singing, church going, bridge playing, missionary performing types. So different from the career oriented more secular groups I was accustomed to. There are other more definite ways I don’t fit in. Many residents have daughters my age and so I’m considered one of the young ones. I rattled a few when I said I was divorced. The good Catholic widows had no idea how to respond to me. I dared not tell them I was actually twice divorced. That might have started an eviction petition.

As administration’s annual resident meeting approached, the Maxine’s revved up for a show down. They’re going to “put them on the spot” and “give them a piece of our mind.” The Maxine’s frantically played phone tag to assign a specific question that each would ask. At the meeting of course, there’s only stone faced silence; in the end, the only question asked dealt with caulking the windows. But at the catered dinner the next evening, the grumbling continued unabated.

The property owners throw an annual Christmas party for the entire building. Talk on the street, or rather, in the hallway, is that the format has changed this year from a sit-down dinner to a buffet. The Maxine’s are sure this is just another example of how things are changing and a way for the company to cut expenses. Turns out, the buffet was a huge success, was well attended and new friendships began since everyone sat wherever they wanted. Maybe there’s hope.

The young people, students, need a study area and use the community room which is always set up for Saturday afternoon Mass. The table that’s the altar is their work area and they return everything to its rightful place when finished. Trouble maker that I am, I suggested to administration that if they want the students to feel welcome here, (that’s money in the bank) perhaps they could put a permanent table at the far end of this underutilized room.

While administration thinks this makes sense, it was their eye rolling and worried look that gives me little hope. I can just hear the Maxine’s. How can the altar that’s used for Mass be moved? Isn’t that just another example of how administration says one thing but does another? Who do those students think they are horning in on our space! All I can say is: what would Jesus do?

Adjustment to my new home continues. I feel I made the best decision in spite of the differences between myself and most of the residents. I’m still getting to know the neighborhood and my comfort grows daily. I enjoy this place and laugh often at the foibles of myself and others as we navigate the changes inherent in life. But I wonder. Can the comedy of this situation shine through amidst the tragedy of aging and loss of control?

I fully accept the “laugh or you’ll cry” dichotomy. Personally, I never want to lose the humorous edge. I also accept the reality that in time I’ll be one of those using a walker, enjoying the current events program, looking forward to Bingo and seeing the annual Christmas party as the highlight of the season.

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