My late father was a screenwriter with a brilliant mind. Growing up, I had a troubled relationship with him, mainly due to his drinking. As he aged, his needs multiplied and I became involved in his care. He was grateful, but could be prickly and stubborn. This became a problem when driving him to doctor appointments became routine, and overseeing his care eventually required me to visit him daily.
At 79 and twice divorced, he was living solo in a Newport Beach apartment when he took a bad fall five years ago. Soon after, I helped him move into Las Palmas in Laguna Woods. It was the best of the assisted-living homes I scouted, but visits put me well outside my comfort zone.
I passed elderly people in the hallway, pushing walkers or hunched over, taking baby steps to the dining room. Where would I be at this age? Was a place like this my fate? The idea of one day losing my own independence was scary. These thoughts made me hurry past the security door to the memory-care unit called Recollections, and take the shortest route from his third-floor apartment to the exit.
Older people don’t necessarily frighten me. I enjoyed the time I spent with my grandparents, and I once co-wrote a book with an amazing woman in her 80s. I’ve met many lively, interesting people at Las Palmas, such as 102-year-old Bessie, who runs the Country Store. A former CPA and teacher, she dresses in colorful jackets, her white hair scooped into a bun, a scarf around her neck, claiming Ovaltine as the secret to her longevity.
One man pushes his spouse’s wheelchair through the lobby where residents read or wait for the shuttle to the market or the movies and announces: “My wife and I have been married 62 years!”
“Congratulations!” I always say. “How’d you make it?”
His wife winks and says, “Forget the little things.”
There’s a wonderfully reckless bluntness among the elderly, who no longer need to impress. One resident wears an extra-large bra to lunch so she can smuggle rolls to her room. Another man comments on each person’s posture. “Stand up straight. Don’t hunch,” he says. I’ve also learned to appreciate wisdom from people who have lived a long life. Eighty-five-year-old Evelyn, camped in her favorite chair, tells our daughter: “Marry a hard worker.”
Dad had been living at Las Palmas for two years when I recommended the facility as part of a community outreach hosted by Sisterhood, a women’s group at Newport Church where I belong. It was a great way for Dad, confined to his bed, to enjoy a few more visitors. The other residents benefited, too. When Dad saw the smiling faces gathered in his apartment the first time the group visited, he thought he’d already made it to heaven. “Who are all these beauties?” he asked, then joked to a pretty young redhead, “I’d like to make a rug out of your hair.”
Our group’s outreach at Las Palmas turned into weekly visits. The teams consist of women of different ages, some with kids, that rotate during the month. We arrive Friday at noon when residents gather, waiting for the dining room doors to open for lunch. They’re lined up with their walkers and electric scooters like racehorses at the gate. We arrange our boxes of bakery-fresh cookies on a party platter, and circulate. The residents fondly call us “the cookie people.”
While we visit Las Palmas hoping to encourage the residents, more often than not we’re the ones who leave with a smile. One gentleman said to me, after learning I have a 19-year-old daughter, “You don’t look old enough to have kids.” Another time we visited when my friend Kim was having a challenging day, but a woman at Recollections complimented her outfit. Kim got an even bigger lift when she heard that the woman is rumored to have dressed Coco Chanel.
Over time, I developed relationships with the directors and staff, and the caregivers who helped Dad. Still, I saw mortality in the eyes of the residents; I also saw my own. My skin isn’t as smooth as it once was. I forget little things. It seemed not so long ago my daughter was born.
Dad was acutely aware of his situation, and joked about his growing dependence, including the day I accidentally dumped him out of his wheelchair. “You’re trying to kill me!” he said. Other times he despaired. I learned to be a cheerleader, often reminding him of the amazing life he’d led.
But in May 2010, the assisted-living director recommended that Dad move to Recollections, for what would be the last months of his life. The day was hot, but I felt a chill. “He’s not ready,” I said, even though I knew it was time.
Soon after, he settled into his new apartment in the memory-care unit, the place I dreaded most. Dad’s active mind went on overdrive. He confided what was really happening in the activity room: a Navy operative in a lab coat was tracking a Russian spy dressed as a custodian. He claimed a Filipina caregiver as his girlfriend and asked me to check on a pack of “intruders” who made nightly visits to his room.
I learned to laugh off Dad’s colorful wanderings and appreciate the other residents in the unit, to cherish the time we had. I realized that the years I helped care for my father were a special blessing: We developed the loving relationship I’d longed for. I realized that part of my struggle in visiting Las Palmas was that one day in the not too distant future, the residents I’d come to know would be gone. And so would he.
When my father died two years ago, the days blurred into one another as our extended family prepared for his memorial and I wrote his eulogy. I wondered if I’d be able to visit Las Palmas with our church group again—to see the residents and staff, and all the memories of him they would conjure. When I did, everyone hugged me and offered condolences. I realized that the place had become familiar; strangely, happily, like home.
Las Palmas is where I learned to get outside myself, to sit and listen to someone brag about their grandson’s baseball game or reminisce about a trip they took. Instead of white hair and wrinkles, I now see the person inside the failing body, imagine the once beautiful young woman or handsome man in the way that I remember Dad. I can hold someone’s hand as they tell me with tears in their eyes how much they miss their spouse. “Thank you for coming here,” residents say.
I’ve learned that for one hour a week I can leave my comfort zone of home, husband, daughter, cat, and friends, and an office full of writing projects, and be someone’s cheerleader. Mother Teresa said, “It is not how much we give, but how much love we put in the giving.” Sometimes all you need is a cookie and a smile. And a little gratitude.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue.