When my mother was still living in her own home I picked her up every Friday afternoon and the two of us enjoyed a night on the town. Mama’s idea of a really good time was to go out to eat, more often than not at Cracker Barrel, and then do a bit of shopping. If she had not had an opportunity to purchase groceries during the week we would find ourselves at one of the food emporiums but if her pantry was fully stocked she would inavariably request that we go Almeda Mall, a place that she enjoyed because it was near her home and she knew the layout of every store like the back of her hand.
My mother never met a stranger so whenever we entered one of the shops there would be a host of people who came over to talk with her or call her by name as they waved a hello. It seems that she had even formed friendships with some of the frequent customers. I always had to laugh, under my breath of course, at the little old men with whom she coyly flirted. She justified her behavior by noting that it made them feel good to have the attentions of a woman if only for a fleeting moment. She so enjoyed making people happy.
There was one lady in particular with whom Mama always spoke. She was a small shy little creature who wore a worn felt hat and a moth eaten coat regardless of what time of year it was. She sat quietly in the food court wringing her hands and bearing a worried look on her face. She sometimes seemed unaware of her surroundings until my mother acknowledged her and then she would quietly engage in a brief conversation. Mama invariably purchased an ice cream or a cookie for the tiny lady and sat listening to her rambling with intense interest. I sometimes suspected that my mom had chosen to come to the mall just so she might have an encounter with her strange friend.
I learned that the woman was in her early nineties. She lived with her son who dropped her off each morning when he went to work and picked her up in the evening on his way back home. He was afraid to leave her at the house all alone but did not have enough income to pay for nursing care for her. He felt that she would at least be around people who might help her if she were at a public place and so he left her under the care of strangers each day with only enough funds to purchase lunch. She had become a kind of mascot to the regulars who worked and shopped there.
Almeda Mall was only a shell of what it had once been and it rarely attracted large crowds during the week. Many of the employees had worked in their respective jobs for years and were familiar with much of the clientele who were mainly from nearby neighborhoods. My mother explained that people knew of the lady’s situation and instead of reporting her and her son to the police they chose to silently look after her. Mama marveled at the kindnesses that she had seen being exhibited by those who understood the woman’s fate. She was the recipient of tiny gifts of food, drink and little trinkets throughout the day. Mostly the people who worked in and frequented the mall made sure that she was comfortable and safe as she sat alone for hours from Monday through Friday.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about the highly irregular situation. It was apparent to me that the sweet woman was not quite herself. She often appeared to be confused and even a bit frightened until a curtain was raised in her mind and she managed to recognize something about my mother that told her that it was safe to talk with her. Even my mom worried that someone might eventually take advantage of the circumstances and somehow harm her strange acquaintance. I simply went along with the charade given that at least for the moment there appeared to be no harm in allowing the lady to enjoy her freedom. I understood the high cost of home care and even greater expense of a senior living facility and marveled a bit that someone had concocted such an outrageous way of dealing with an elder family member. It seemed both neglectful and ingenious at one and the same time.
Eventually we no longer saw Mama’s “friend” when we visited the mall. My mother inquired about her and learned that she had finally become too ill to make the daily trip anymore. Her son had gone from store to store thanking employees who had been kind to her and told them that he had found some people from a church who had agreed to look after his mom at home at least until she became strong enough to continue her outings again.
She never returned and it worried and saddened my mother. I, on the other hand, was actually relieved because I had wondered how the practice could possibly have been continued without something terrible eventually happening to the old soul. Mama, however, saw it differently. She believed that as long as the lady had been able to dress herself in her hat and coat and have a place to go each day she had a reason for living, something to look forward to. Mama felt that being a shut in would surely lead to her demise.
As one grows older and less able to live independently it falls on loved ones to take responsibility for care and safety. It can be a daunting process, especially if there are no funds for securing the help of professionals. The once sharp minds of the elderly often slip into interludes of confusion and childlike thinking. They are less capable of being left alone than a young school age child. Those who assume the role of caretakers find themselves trapped in a twenty four seven all consuming duty. Even placing seniors in retirement homes does not provide the assurances that everything will be smooth sailing. It requires regular vigilance lest the beloved family member be neglected or abused. There are scores of families struggling to deal with loved ones whose minds and bodies have left them in a terrifying holding pattern that saps the finances and the energies of everyone involved. It is a reality being played out in communities across America that few acknowledge or discuss.
There was a time when extended families lived together on farms. The older members lived out their days under the watchful eyes of dozens of relatives. Someone was always available to see to the person’s needs. In our modern world it is virtually impossible to replicate the old ways and modern medical practices have made it far more likely that people will live longer than ever before. We now have seventy year old children struggling to care for their ninety year old parents with little or no help. It’s up to us to volunteer our efforts whenever and wherever we can.
Our elderly were once hard working people. They need and deserve loving attention in their final years. We need to make it a priority to devise ways of making their days more meaningful so that nobody has to sit in a mall waiting for the kindness of strangers. It’s time that we create programs that will be open to everyone regardless of income and that we all consider finding ways of volunteering to help. Someone in a little hat and coat is just waiting for us to come to the rescue.