Saturday, February 1, 2003

Aging gracefully

Grandma moves on, with teeth


LAWRENCEBURG, Ind. - Grandma is willing to put up with a lot in her old age. Her balance is shot. Her silver hair is thinning. Her swollen feet are swathed in booties, which are labeled with her name.

She has just arrived at the inevitable juncture: round-the-clock care. She knew it was time, and she's always been a good sport. But even Hazel Johnson has her limits.

"They said I needed to take out my teeth every night and let them soak," she told us when we visited last week.

"Now listen," she replied. "I've had these same teeth since 1946, and I can't sleep without them."

The nurse finally gave in.

"Well, if you insist," she said, "I'll have to fill out a waiver."

We couldn't help but laugh. Paperwork to keep your own teeth in your mouth?

Grandma's eyes twinkled. "I guess they're afraid I'll swallow them or something," she said.

No looking back

Grandma is 88. She lived independently for as long as she could - first in her own little house in Bright, Ind., then in an apartment building for the elderly.

Never one to look back, she has taken each downsizing in stride, even allowing my mother - the –ber-organizer of the family - to plow through her cabinets. No, Grandma would say from the sidelines, I don't really need three identical saltshakers.

Her mind has always been sharp. When the Triominoes fad swept her building, she reveled in a game that finally required some thought. At Christmas, I found myself scouring bookstores for appropriate gifts - word searches, brainteasers, crossword puzzles.

Physically, she tried her best to cope. Instead of standing up from the couch, she took to rolling off of it onto the floor, then rising from her knees.

One day, this trick failed her. Grandma sat on the floor for three hours, hoping for a breakthrough. Finally, she used her Lifeline to summon help.

Humor survives

I thought she might resist the nursing home, or at least shed a tear.

Nothing doing. Grandma has shown us the other side of submission to care - that it doesn't have to be terrible, that humor and spirit can survive physical frailty.

She now lives at a nice place called Shady Nook Care Center. She used to mend clothes there as a volunteer, and some people still remember her.

Shady Nook's beef stew comes with huge chunks of meat. Its lobby is graced with an elaborate birdcage.

"They wait on you hand and foot here," Grandma says, sounding pleased.

At shower time, residents sit on chairs with holes in the bottom, and someone washes them down with a handheld sprayer.

To get underneath, they aim the nozzle up through the hole.

"Wow," I say. "I had no idea."

Grandma shoots me an amused look.

"You have a lot to learn," she says.

Yes. And how fortunate I am to have her as a teacher.

E-mail or call (859) 578-5584.

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