I worked the dinner shift at the Assisted Living facility tonight. After making sure my charge ordered what she wanted and ate without spilling on her jacket, I looked around me. Of all the grey heads bent over their food, most of them are women, only two or three in couples. I observed one couple. He kept looking at her, maybe in adoration but I know he is losing his memory and I suspect he relies on her for everything, maybe always has. Conversation in the room seemed generally stilted and difficult, the impediments being hearing loss, disinterest and an inability to communicate effectively anymore.
Many of these old people live here alone. They wander the halls, alone; they attend the programs, alone; and go to dinner, alone. You find them congregated sometimes but the less able ones can’t do that. I saw an old man sitting alone and wondered what my husband will be like at that age. Will he be alone? Will he be lonely? I don’t want that for him. My heart ached.
My youngest son recently expressed his wish that I be around for his children, that I wouldn’t die too young. He wants his children to know their grandmother. Flattering for me that he should have such a wish. I hope that when I get old I will be near my boys and their families. I will want my independence but with the knowledge that they are close by. Then I may not be so lonely if my husband passes on before me.
My charge has no family living anywhere nearby. Her world has shrunk as her memory fails and all she has daily are us, her employed caregivers. No family stops by regularly, they can’t, they live states away. I have watched the consequences of her choice not to live near her sons, to forgo the comforts of family for the immediate: her professional life, friends, her home, all now mostly gone as she approaches her 100th year. She is lonely for her sons, their children and her great grandchildren. She is frustrated she cannot touch them and talk to them face to face. Sometimes her befuddled brain confuses her interactions with the electronic photographs streaming on the device in her kitchen for real, live connection with them all. I don’t want that. I want to be the kind grandma who lives nearby that everyone loves to have around. I want them to look after me in my dotage.
There is a deep darkness inside of me that lurks always. It emerges, leaks out, at times unexpected. This darkness shades my God-made soul, lies to me, telling me that I will be abandoned, that really I am truly alone. What exists inside this darkness is fear and loneliness, big drivers in how I lead my life. The lurking loneliness manifests itself in a large manhole right in my middle. My poor husband, he can never hope to fill my manhole, he was never meant to.
As I age I am increasingly able to spend quality time alone but much prefer company for certain activities. There are still things that sometimes catch me unawares, and strike a cord, like seeing someone eat alone or an elderly person trying to be independent when clearly they need some loving intervention.
I guess because God created us for connection, with Him and each other, within loving, functioning relationships, when there is forced aloneness, it feels wrong. There is something about eating alone that evokes great loneliness for me. Maybe it’s because eating should be a convivial and shared activity, not just filling the stomach with food to sustain life. I watched a movie years ago with a scene of a deprived little boy eating stolen food alone. I cried for hours. It struck a cord deep within me.
I felt that cord again tonight and it hurt.