MUSICAL CHAIRS

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If you’re old enough, you may remember that game.  We used to play it at birthday parties in someone’s house when we were five and six and seven, after the candles and cake. Somebody’s mother would double as pianist. Armless chairs were set out in two rows, back to back – one fewer chair than the number of guests. Then we marched around the chairs to the music, alert for the sudden stop. Quick! Scramble for a chair! Alas – one guest was always luckless and found herself out of the game. A chair was removed, the music resumed. It was very exciting.

I never won, although I came close a couple of times – one of three pushy little girls trying to commandeer either of the two remaining chairs.  There were consolation prizes of course, as well as the real prize – all of them on the level of what could be found in a Crackerjack box and therefore not anything anyone had really wanted but nice to have won all the same. And afterwards, there were other games and maybe a few magic tricks performed by a father.

I’m reminded of this now that I’m eighty-eight and own an apartment in what is known as an “independent living community for people over fifty-five.” The truth is that very few people buy in here until they reach their mid-seventies, however energizing “over fifty-five” may sound.  Since the community is about twenty-two years old, those who initially came when they were in their seventies are twenty-two years older. Of course they may have moved on to a nursing home or the hereafter. But if not, are they still living “independently?” Well, around here “independent living” seems to have become an elastic term, meaning that you require no services from the community other than those provided to residents who can still take care of themselves. So if you’re sufficiently well fixed to afford an aide twenty-four-seven and have an extra room so she (it’s usually a she) can live with you and help you do all the things you can no longer do for yourself, you may never need to go to a nursing home.

What has this got to do with musical chairs? The disappearance factor. Not the disappearance of a chair; we’ve got plenty of chairs – in both dining rooms, in the café, the pub, the living room, the library, the large community room. It’s the people you’ve gotten to know since coming here who keep disappearing from the chairs they normally occupy. If something non-fatal happens so that they’re sent to the ER or hospital (both quite nearby), then spend several weeks to a month in a rehabilitation facility, and then come back to the community but retire into their apartment or villa with the aforesaid help of a full-time aide, arranging to have all dinners delivered – they’ve essentially dropped out of community life.  We no longer see them at activities, or outings, or movies, or meals. As in musical chairs, they’re out of the game.

That’s hard enough for the disappeared.  It’s also hard for the rest of us. Setting aside questions of developing affection or friendship, what you see happening in a place like this, even if you’re still relatively “okay,” is probably a harbinger of your future. God forbid you fall.  You realize from the experiences of those around you that even if you recover, it will take two or three times as long to regain most (although probably not all) of your prior mobility and strength as it might have done twenty years earlier.

Other residents start disappearing in another way. Put bluntly, as memory loss increases, it begins to make you a non-person to everyone else.  You completely forget to come take your place at scheduled dinners with your friends. You can’t be relied on to participate in activities, or assume responsibility for a program.  You tell the same stories again and again and again and again. Eventually you’re no longer invited to occupy a chair at anyone’s table.

In the past three months, one acquaintance – hitherto very active, although functioning (well) with one kidney — fell in her own villa and broke her shoulder.  Her right arm (the one she uses) is in a sling for a month.  Another sustained a similar fall in her apartment and hit her shoulder on the edge of a bureau, shattering it.  After two months she was back from rehab in her apartment, still recovering, when she fell again, trying to pick something up from the floor.  This time it was just bruises all over; she was lucky. A very active woman got out of her car the wrong way and put her hip out; four weeks later it’s still so painful she needs to lean on a walker to get around the building. Another friend was entering the back seat of a car when the driver, thinking she was already in, accelerated; the friend fell out and the car’s rear wheel ran over her heel. (She also broke her arm.)

My closest friend here, a year older than I am, came with me to a performance of the Messiah by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra two years ago. This year I went with others; my friend is now in hospice. In the intervening two years, she began repeatedly to fall while walking, always because her right foot kept tripping over the left; it was a symptom of what was eventually diagnosed as Parkinson’s Plus, the “Plus” being MSA (an acronym for a hideous disease descriptively called Multiple System Atrophy). She can no longer move, and no longer makes much sense; she has a doctorate, but asks me to observe all the rabbits running up and down the corridors of the assisted living facility where she will soon die.

I may be wrong, but I believe I am now the oldest American person with a personal blog.  With astonishing regularity, Judy Kugel writes an Eighty-Something blog twice a week from Cambridge, Massachusetts; although her husband has Parkinson’s, she does try to look on the bright side of every day and has a devoted following.  She’s only in her early eighties though.  Ronni Bennett, in her mid-70’s, writes As Time Goes By from the West Coast; she has both pancreatic cancer and COPD and is an inspiration in how she’s been dealing with these appalling tribulations. I read both these blogs assiduously, considering their authors to be shining examples of how I should comport myself but don’t. As you can see, I disappear from the blogosphere for a year at a time and return with downer reports of all the not-good things that likely lie ahead.

On the other hand, so far I am still hanging in here. Which I shall have to continue to do, because I’m not one of those who can afford an aide. (Nor do I have a place to put her, or the temperament to put up with her.)  Should I be unlucky and the need arise, my offspring will have to deal with it. Also, I still have most of my memory, so can remember when not only musical chairs but a number of other things were fun. Much fun. Happy memories do brighten gloomy days. So I tend to remain an optimist. What about I couldn’t really explain to you, but there it is.  Perhaps an ostrich optimist.

And — oh boy! – do we have holiday festivities galore around here, for those not yet closeted in their apartments and villas.  Christmas Eve dinner coming up real soon, followed by Christmas Day buffet, New Year’s Eve Buffet — with music and a removable dance floor in the living room till 10 — and then New Year’s Day dinner too.  You may notice that when old people celebrate, it’s likely to be with lots of food!  Ours is excellent.  The Executive Chef recently got married; our menus glow with his happiness.

In conclusion, dear readers (if I still have any), enjoy your relative youth, your relative health and all the good things that exist in your now.  You’ll never get your now back, so revel in it while it’s here.  Believe it or not (in view of the realities I’ve just laid out in this piece), I’m looking forward to 2020 as much as you are.

24 thoughts on “MUSICAL CHAIRS

  1. akronroots

    I haven’t read yet, but an email from you have me chills and I’m looking forward to sitting down and reading this from you. Glad to see you’re back!

    Bethany
    34, Oregon

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  2. Sadly I remember when my mother-in-law was in her last years at an assisted living place. She was at the point where she was housed with a roommate but they kept dying throwing her into depression. Finally she was in a single person room and that worked a whole lot better. It may be another passage of life but it’s a more painful one.

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    • Well, this place isn’t assisted living, so no one can “house” you with another. We all live in market-rate properties which we have purchased and which we, or our estate, can sell. But seeing more and more contemporaries falling by the wayside isn’t exactly cheering, even if you don’t share a room or an apartment. And thinking of it as another “passage of life” does not console me. Passage to where? It’s certainly life winding down, narrowing in scope. But I like to think it’s not a less valuable part of life, and if one still has one’s mind not less rich. There’s wisdom to be found even in the experiences of the last years.

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  3. Yes, I do remember you, Nina. I often wondered if you were still around and now I know you still are. A great post again. I still blog as well but with a lot less joy de vivre. My dear Helvi ( the girl from Finland) past away at 5.30pm on the 29th of Oct, just a few weeks ago. After 54 years of being together and the best of friends, I am now hardly in the land of the living. Some say, ‘happiness is overrated.’ Your post proves the opposite and has at least given me a pretty good sample on surviving and making the best of things.
    Your description of your present abode made me smile. Look after yourself, dear Nina. Gerard

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    • Oh Gerard, I have more often than not been quietly following your blog (like a fly on the wall), so I knew you had lost Helvi and I understand how it feels. A great part of you has been torn away, leaving you raw, bleeding and exposed. It’s probably no great comfort for me to tell you that it gradually becomes more bearable. So I won’t. (Although it does.) But look at you — cooking lamb curry from scratch, even now! I almost copied the recipe, but then decided not to because the spinach turned me off. However, I shall think of you gallantly eating curried lamb and spinach for Christmas because you and Helvi used to do it together. Stay in touch, and try to keep well….

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    • Thanks so much, Clarissa. I’m not sure what’s so “wonderful” about me except that my mind still works pretty well at 88. (Perhaps people tend to underestimate the “old old?” But that’s a subject for another post.) However, I’ll take all the compliments I can get. And yes, I will try to blog more frequently from the place on life’s continuum I seem to inhabit at this point.

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    • Don’t know about “going forward,” Isabelle. Maybe just treading water at this point? But of course my “point” is further along than your “point.” So by all means do carpe diem as long as you can!

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  4. Rita Stewart

    Hi Nina: Delighted you’re back…and still alive and kicking! I will also turn 88 in January….and still hanging in there! Let’s chat and catch up SOON…

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  5. Good to see you back in Blogland., Nina. I wondered how you were doing all along. Now I know. You have given us the real picture of life at 88, and it’s a mix of happy and sad times. Seems the older we get (I’m 80), the fewer friends we have around. It’s important to stay in reality, every day is a gift, and every good memory to be cherished. I’m working with an editor on my historical fiction book about my famous grandfather, a trumpet soloist. I researched his life and intertwined my own into his story. Those are long-lasting memories to build on todays. Your life has been rich, and rewarding. A wonderful storyteller, you have shared many of your ventures and your wisdom with us. Don’t stay away too long. I’d love to hear more. Have a Happy New Year.
    📚 Christine

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      • Thanks Nina for your interest in the book. That’s my goal, publishing it in 2020. It’s everyday at the computer—no weekends off. My editor is an awesome teacher along the way. Look forward to more of your ‘in the slower lane’ life. We could all learn from your wisdom. Happy New Year! 🥳🎶

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  6. So glad you’re back. So much time has passed since your trip to Israel, I was afraid something unpleasant had happened. I love reading your posts. You write so well.
    Everyday is a gift. Happy New Year!
    Susan

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  7. always a pleasure reading your impressions…. got my defibrillator just a short while after our last meeting, and I thought of you as I listened to the kind advice of the small group of doctors and nurses who saw me through the ordeal. Wishing you good health and good humor as we approach another year and hope for not too many surprises.

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