Before a friend went to the hospital for surgery, she called to ask if I would come and look after her mother, Mary, who was 99 last summer and is one of the dearest people I know on this planet.
I did not hesitate to clear my calendar, write up a little care plan to cover Mary's routine and note any special needs she might have. Her granddaughter would come to the house at the end of her student/working at the mall days and stay overnight. I have known Mary for years and welcomed the opportunity to spend time with her and help in any way I could.
Mary falls in that group of near centenarians who reach 100 with little or no evidence of clinical disease. Experts refer to these souls as "escapers." She wears glasses, has one tiny blue hearing aid and slides a dental appliance into her mouth every morning. I would find her in the morning upstairs in her bed with Hawkeye, the big cat, snuggled at her side. She would return my greeting and move to the side of the bed to swing out her legs and pull on fresh sweats and runners to start the day. She went down the stairs and to the breakfast table along a familiar path that lent her support as she stepped past furniture and counters. I wish I could move with her grace and light steps.
She can eat anything she is served and likes just about everything. Loves her tea with milk and sugar.
Medications are minimal. They are ready in the convenience pack from her pharmacy. I never really got them straight, but I was confident she knew what she was administering. She takes a daily ASA and water pills and blood pressure regulators morning and night. She removes her Exelon patch from the night before and applies a fresh one to help with early Alzheimer's symptoms. She also applied her nitro-dur patch for angina before I had time to settle her comfortably at the kitchen table. Lumigan drops for glaucoma are applied each night.
Mary takes care of her own body functions and gets help to shower every second night. I combed her hair with my pick and massaged her hands with my favourite moisturizer. Her skin is softer and less wrinkled than mine.
She so admired the colourful leaves outside her window I suggested we take a drive along Abbott Street to admire the fall foliage. Mary often commented on how much she loves nature and especially enjoys trees. Later in the week, I took her to Knox Mountain. She noticed houseboats near Poplar Point that I could barely make out.
Our outings were brief; I took her walker along to assist her to a nearby bench. Then we sat quietly together and watched the clouds hover down Boucherie above the bridge. Mary will doze off in the car and need a nap when we get home, but then so will I.
Aging studies show centenarians are a diverse lot, varying in education, socio-economic status, ethnicity, religion and diet. My own unscientific observation is the factor economics play in the aging process. There is little, if any, data on the subject of money, and its relation to aging well. Much easier to obtain good nutrition, get regular exercise and maintain positive social skills if you are not stressed concerning your financial portfolio.
Apparently, the Loma Linda, Calif., Seventh-day Adventists are good role models, as they have an average life expectancy of 85 years. It is believed it's because their religion forbids smoking and drinking, and encourages exercise, a vegetarian diet, a sense of community and strict adherence to a day of rest and reflection. For me, length of years has never been a goal as much as living at peace. My mantra this week is "I am strong, I am well, I am content."
According to the experts, centenarians are not obese and do not have a long history of smoking. The more attention I pay to seniors and the aging process, the more convinced I am we are as diverse a lot as kids in grade school. We know that 85 per cent are women, probably because men have higher rates of death by accident and misadventure in their early years. Mary's family does not have a history of very old age, but she does share the typical pattern of close family ties and the desire to live in community. The oldest of five girls, Mary told me "we need to live together and help each other."
My Mondays with Mary are much like Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie. Remember that sweet book about a man's love for his mentor? I still feel an afterglow when I recall the wonderful gifts of warmth and insight Morrie taught.
My Mary is a living reminder that love is the answer and any life lessons we have yet to learn are found in the wisdom of compassion that we express for those closest to us. To be with Mary is to be quiet and in repose.
I read that the latest $10 million donation into the research of healthy aging will focus on cars designed to better suit older drivers and passengers, study the dwindling of lean muscle mass and look into the benefits of yoga for older women with arthritis. I think a better project would be a bubble wrap to protect us from constant bumping and bruising and a pen that would extend from our index finger when we double-clicked on our thumbs. Thus we could exercise and make notes from the latest study on seniors at the same time as we drive to the nearest pub (make that park) to meet a friend.
Jeanette Dunagan is an Okanagan artist who has lived in Kelowna for more than
30 years. You can email her at