All the Single Ladies: Going Back to Middle School in Your Final Years by
5
(8 Stories)

Prompted By Middle School

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My mother lived on her own for the first time in her life from age 89 until her death at age 91. In these three years, she found a community that was like a being in middle school, with a few token males attending. The women were united in trying to find happiness and a sense of belonging as their lives wound down. They had left their former lives behind and most had suffered the loss of their lifelong partners. But they had each other and related to each other much like they had in their tween years.

In so many ways, the senior living experience was a reincarnation of middle school. Men caused major mean girl issues, even for women in their eighties and nineties.

When Dad went into a nursing home, it was clear that Mom could not manage living in their 3-floor condo alone. My brothers and I struggled with how to get our 89-year-old mother to stop driving and move somewhere where she would be safe. Starting over by herself for the first time in her life was unthinkable to her.

Then Mom became sick and needed an aide to help her and drive her to Dad’s nursing home, so we “children” shamelessly took advantage of her vulnerable state to get her to give up driving and agree to move into a “senior living community.” This apartment complex allowed her to live independently, provided transportation and two daily meals, and had room for her most precious possessions. While she hoped Dad would join her there, it was not to be. Thus, Mom began her 3-year experience of being an independent single lady in search of a community that was all her own.

I felt pretty satisfied with how well Mom’s new senior living apartment reflected who she was and what she valued.  But when my husband and I took her to breakfast the next morning, I felt like we had forced her to live in a version of middle school for seniors. There were no table numbers, so we selected an empty one close to the buffet so Mom didn’t have to walk very far. No sooner had we sat down with our food than a woman, who was very upset we had taken her table, chastised us. When I asked how we were supposed to know where to sit, she explained the unwritten rules. If you are new, you have to find your own group for meals. You just look around for a table with an empty seat and ask if you can sit there. OMG! It was going to be like the lunchroom at middle school. How could I leave my mother here?

Mom accepted this arrangement far better than I. This was my first surprise. I discovered my mother was a very social being and she found herself a dinner table in short order. When women she knew from her past moved into the senior living community, she added them to her table if the others agreed and if there was room. Mom’s new community was like a sorority with everyone able to veto new members, and she felt like she belonged in short order. After trying several breakfast tables, she ended up with a delightful male companion who, much to her amazement, brought her juice and coffee. This was not a skill Dad ever mastered. But she made it clear she was not interested in him “in that way.”

So many aspects of the senior living experience were a reincarnation of middle school. Men caused major mean girl issues, even for women in their eighties and nineties. If someone had claimed one of the few guys available as a “boyfriend” (yes, that’s what they called it), the other women knew they were to steer clear. Couples were regarded as separate from the female culture, and women who chose men over their women friends were dropped from the social circle. Mom saw nothing unfair about this. She accepted it as the norm and, aside from her breakfast companion, she stuck with her group of women. All of her lady friends had suffered tremendous losses. In addition to their spouses, several had also buried a child. Close friends dating back childhood had died. Finding new women to befriend definitely trumped having a “boyfriend” for my mother.

The women gossiped about one another and planned what to wear to an event. They excluded former friends who developed Alzheimer’s or needed live-in caregivers. It was fear that drove them to this mean girl behavior. Like middle schoolers, they bonded over shopping trips to the local mall. If they didn’t like the evening’s entertainer, they whispered amongst themselves and decided to walk out en masse. To survive in her new environment, Mom had to lean forward to make new friends, take pleasure in her children and their children and grandchildren, and accept the inevitable. My mother never wanted to be in a nursing home and worried whenever she couldn’t remember a name. I take solace in the fact that she died suddenly, as she had hoped she would.

My mother often talked about the picture she took when she moved into her senior living version of middle school. She hated like it the way my kids and now grandkids despised their sixth-grade school photos. Mom knew it would be the picture they used in an announcement on the front desk when she died. One of the saddest moments after she died was going back to that building and seeing the picture on the desk, along with her funeral arrangements. And she was right about the picture. It didn’t do her justice.

Mom used to joke about some of the activities at the senior living community. She knew pajama parties and fashion shows were silly, but she saw the bigger picture. This going back to her preteen interests was part of the cycle of life. She loved people so she went to dice games, jeopardy contents, and parties celebrating every holiday. New Year’s 2015 was a blast for her. She dressed in her finery (of course) and even put her walker aside and danced. She told me it was the best party ever. “These are my people,” she proclaimed.  Finding a community, even one that reflected the practices of middle school, made my mother’s final years purposeful and joyful.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Tags: senior living, aging
Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau says:

    Interesting analogy, Laurie. Your mother seems so much more mature than the others, willing to put up with so much, knowing what her needs were and wanting to have friends, but not at any cost. I, too, had to move my mother into a senior living center, but moved her from Southfield, MI to MA to be close to me. She never even tried to connect with others, and she lived there more than 15 years! I didn’t really witness the culture you describe to the same extent, but my mother didn’t put herself out there either.

    We all have to do the best we can, as our parents age.

  2. Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman says:

    I love the way you turned the prompt upside down yet totally convinced me that your mother’s senior community was a throwback to middle school. It is a revelation to see your mother find her place in a way that was true and right for her. I almost cheered when she had so much fun on New Year’s Eve. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy says:

      I was going to write about what a nightmare middle school was for my kids and can currently be for my grandkids since I didn’t go there myself. But that’s their story to tell, so I decided to share my mother’s since she’s not here to share it herself. I really admired how well she managed.

  3. Profile photo of Suzy Suzy says:

    Laurie, this sounds so much like my mother’s senior community in Boca Raton, FL. I guess they’re the same everywhere. And yes, the whole table thing seemed like middle school to me too, but my mother navigated it well. She developed a good group of friends, and even had a “beau” while she was there (she didn’t call him a boyfriend). When she died, the beau took up with someone else from her friend group.

  4. Profile photo of Risa Nye Risa Nye says:

    Neither one of my parents went to live in a community like this. I can only imagine. Thanks for sharing this inside glimpse into the strangely familiar social strata among seniors.

  5. Your story was vivid, Laurie, well-painted, those words. That environment was once the place I worked for so many years and got to know all those dear people and personalities, witnessing those often unkind “table rights” and chairs claimed. I think your mom was brave, any mom, to adapt the way life forces adaptation when change arrives. Even though you narrated her story through a very factual voice, I was moved – my own personal remembrances peeking through aside your recounting, thus your work brought forth emotion. I saw it all, through your words. Brava, author-daughter! Well told!

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