I am an orphan. Alas, I do not have curly hair, freckles, and a winning smile. I do not make nervous gestures with my cap as I toe the ground, nor do I wear neatly patched clothing or call people “Guv’ner”. Nevertheless my father died more than twenty years ago, and my mother more than a decade before that. My wife and I moved to Minnesota in 1977 alone. My sister tried living in Wayzata for six months during the winter of 1978 before the cold drove her off to western Canada where it is significantly warmer. I have written many times about how welcomed JoAnne and I have felt and that our children know Minneapolis as home.
Ice fishing and snowmobiles aside, one of the things I never understood about Minnesotans is the longevity of their families. My mother died young and tragically after a long illness. My father was a chain smoking, work obsessed, driven “Type A” man in a gray flannel suit. Except for the drugs, groupies, roadies, and trashing hotel rooms, my dad was as self destructive as a 1970s rock group. His fervent actions made Sammy Glick look like Gandhi. He astonished those who knew him by somehow living to the age of sixty.
When I began my work life in Minnesota as a twenty- something, I was horrible at guessing the ages of any colleague over 35 — particularly women. I knew better than to ask, and it was not a day-to-day question. But occasionally a co-worker would mention a grown child or an anniversary that suggested they were older or younger than they appeared to my inexperienced mind. There were a few gaffes, but generally I learned to listen and volunteer very little.
I still grimace when I recall a casual Friday afternoon conversation I had with a co-worker in the late 1970s. We were chatting idly about our respective plans for the coming weekend. She mentioned that she was driving to Bemidji to visit her parents. Since I pegged my colleague as being somewhere between 85 and 140 years old, I was astonished and unfortunately showed it. The best I could do to cover my surprise was to mutter “Bemidji” six or seven times as if the absurdity of the sound of her hometown was rendering me nearly incoherent.
Soon after this experience I became aware of how many people my age and considerably older still had active vital parents. Now decades later, as I hit my fifties, more and more of my friends have become primary caregivers and decision makers for elderly family members. In the ‘80s the buzz was real estate, and in the ‘90s money. I could contribute to cocktail party chatter about the economy. (“My broker was so astute in anticipating the 2000 crash that he lost my money in 1999.”) The new topic aside from what happened to my ‘90s money has become nursing homes.
From what I was hearing at work and in social gatherings with friends, the challenge of finding a good care facility for mother is tougher than getting their “C” student child into Madison. As the competition heated up in this geriatric Super Bowl I was almost envied for my orphan status. I heard the horror stories of baby boomers with sharp elbows wrangling for the last spot at Happy Acres for their aging parent. Instead of discussing George Bush, my friends were suddenly debating the relative merits of a board and care facility as opposed to assisted living, or a life care community. All I was hearing was that the best places have a two-year waiting list, and if you can’t make your own bed and feed yourself, Walden Pond won’t consider you…
Until the arrival of JoAnne’s mother last November, I thought I could sit out this developmental stage. Last month I wrote humorously about my mother-in law Teresa joining us in California. Suddenly I wished I could recall some of the advice I heard over the years. Whether its SSI, SNF’s (Skilled Nursing Facilities) versus Residential Board and Care, we are learning the language. It looks as though Teresa will stay with us. She is a delight to have. If she needs more care, we will make the tough decision together. Characteristically I am worried about me. After studying the glossy brochures I fear the people in the pictures all appear spryer, healthier, and more full of life than I am right now.
Tom H. Cook is a rapidly aging writer who, unlike Rhoda, thought he would keep better in California. Contact him at email@example.com.