We Are Failing Too Many of Our "Old Folks At Home"
As a young piano student, I learned the classic Steven Foster song whose lines serenade, "All the world is sad and dreary/ Ev'rywhere I roam/ Oh how my lonely heart grows weary/ Far from the old folks at home."
It seemed so sad, but a child's heart did not understand. After spending time with some of the elderly in our community, my heart is torn, as this seems to be their theme song.
Although some of the elderly in our community seem to be well cared for and financially secure, I have seen all too many who are neglected by family members and live only off the pitiful sum of money provided them by the Social Security fund.
Our family went to help do yard work for one of these shut-in sisters. (I will call them brothers and sisters because too often we forget our responsibility to them.) She is almost confined to a wheelchair, occasionally able to get around with a walker. She has no husband or children, and only occasionally gets visits from nieces.
However, she does have a few people in her church who visit and help her. For the most part she spends everyday in her apartment or just outside of it, always alone. She has the television, but much of the things there breech her old fashioned standards.
She often has medical issues that require her to find someone to drive her to doctors and the pharmacy. The only other times she gets out of the house is when the monthly checks come and she goes to the bank and grocery store. These trips also require her ability to find someone to drive her.
The yard work we did for her seemed so simple to us: remove weeds from a 2' by 5' bed, plant a few perennials and two tomato plants, and clear some tree limbs from the path to her door. But to her it was a task she dearly wanted to do but physically cannot. She is prevented from running to the store to buy the plants, let alone kneeling over to dig in the soil.
The frustration she feels at her inability to do things that she previously was able to do without a second a thought has brought a depression to her moods. Though she tries hard to be happy when people come to be with her, the evidence is there that physical problems are beating her down.
This sister only gets visits when she needs help or rides, she is confined to a small apartment alone. She struggles just to be able to bathe without having to nap afterwards to relieve the physical strain of it. She longs for the days gone by when she had friends she could visit, places to go, and the ability to do the things (like gardening) that she always enjoyed.
Another sister in our community is 84 and is beginning to show signs of old age dementia. She suffers from health problems that are a result of her age and hard life. She is the mother of nine, and the grandmother to many more.
But she cannot drive, she lives off the social security checks that come monthly, and only rarely receives visits from her family. The dementia that plagues her seems to drive those who love her away because of the mean-spirited things she says, but never would have, had she been her younger self.
I took her to do her monthly errands. She cashed her check and we went to the Rescue Mission to get a $1 purse to replace one that is too heavy to carry. We also picked up a $1 footstool so she can prop up her feet in her chair.
We picked up a $5 watch at the pawnshop to replace one that the clasp was too difficult for her fingers to navigate. We picked up the money orders to pay her bills for the month; she knew the total to the penny even though the actual bill has not yet come.
Then we went shopping to pick up the food that would last her a month. Powdered milk, three boxes of cereal, two pieces of chicken, two loaves of bread, two cans of peas and carrots, some soap and paper towels.
Her comment often was that a particular item "is dear these days," meaning that an $.89 can of peas and carrots could make or break her budget due to a price increase.
She also rarely gets visits, and the errand trip I took with her gave her the opportunity to have human contact for the four hours we were out and about. But since she spends so much time alone, the only thing she could talk about was herself: her ailments and her past.
These two sisters are a cry to our community. Even though they are "getting by" on the assistance they receive from the government, they are not "getting by" as members of our community. Families are too busy to care for their own; neighbors do not take the time to sit and chat with shut-ins; and these brothers and sisters are suffering from loneliness and depression.
These two women have taught me a lot. When I go to the grocery store, sure, I complain about prices; but I never knew there were those who had to decide between a can of peas and carrots and medication.
When I am at home for the first evening in a week and the laundry hasn't been done, it seems a big deal to get up off the couch to go throw a load in. But to these women, they have to wait until someone can visit to carry the basket and box of soap to the lower level of their apartment complex for them, and then they have to budget the $3 it will take to use the machines per load.
Many of our elderly are taken care of a little better in the nursing homes, but as a community of neighbors we are failing the elderly. They need to be loved, cared for and made to feel they are important and have something to contribute despite their afflictions. They need more than just a song at Christmas time, as many get, but far too many don't get even that.
How sad and dreary it must be when the only company you have is the "old folks at home," who only visit as ghosts from the past.