Older people have a reputation for being bad tempered, ogres that no one knows how to handle. Quite a few maladies might explain this ornery condition, especially if a person has suddenly changed character. For a life-long grouch to remain grouchy in old age shocks no one; when a gentle soul totally changes character, we all jump to attention. Such was the case with my father. Daddy, the very epitome of patience and gentleness all my life, changed drastically in his last few years. He’d call me from the nursing home in Lumber City and scream at me, although I’d never before heard him raise his voice. Alzheimers was screaming, not my beloved father. He spent his last years where he could get the care we could not provide. My sister and I visited him almost daily, making sure he never became one of the abandoned ones.
Most of the older people I know are beautiful. I can still see my grandmother Nichols. She never cut her hair and every morning after brushing those beautiful white tresses, she pulled them back into a tight bun, carefully pinned for safe keeping. She spent her last years in blindness because she was afraid to have the cataracts removed from her eyes, but she was a gentle soul to her last day. Outspoken, mind you, but nothing’s wrong with that. As a rule, the elderly have lost their youth, not their brains.
One of the dearest older ladies I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime was a neighbor in Augusta. She loved people, especially children, and doted on Calvin, my oldest son, who was a baby at the time. She’d come over and ask to hold him for a while. Later on as we became friends, she’d tap on my door in the wee hours if she heard him crying.
“Honey, let me take him,” she’d whisper. “I’ll rock him back to sleep. You have to go to work in the morning.”
We attended church with her regularly, and she was as proud of us as if we had been real blood kin instead of kindred spirits. She showed the baby off to all her friends, who passed him from one lap to another. She only allowed them short turns though; mostly she held him. Her energy was boundless, even though she was 75 years old when I first met her. She seemed to accomplish more at 75 than I did at 21. All these years later, she comes to my mind often and I smile at the memories.
Mrs. Baker lived with her 79-year-old husband, who was the proverbial cantankerous old coot. He growled like a bulldog from morning till night. Nothing anybody did suited him, especially his wife. His food was too salty, too hot, too cold, too bland. He didn’t like the way she’d ironed his shirt. If she wanted to watch television, he wanted it off so he could nap. When he was awake, he controlled the remote. If children came by on bicycles, he yelled at them to stay out of his yard. He was always nice to me for some reason, but I was in the minority. Only once did Mrs. Baker discuss his disposition with me.
“Now, Honey, don’t you pay no attention to Fred,” she told me one Sunday morning. “He’s just hard to get along with, but he don’t mean nothing by it. That’s the only way he knows how to behave. He sure does love that baby of yours though.”
I understand more now why people become cantankerous as they age. Pain becomes a live-in nuisance. Ordinary chores take longer and longer. Every morning brings another ache, another malfunction it seems. I think the hardest pill to swallow for my father was the day he realized he could no longer drive. When he hung his car keys up for the final time, his spirit crumbled along with his independence.
In rural southern areas like Baxley, the eldercare situation is not as bad as in other parts of the country, or so it seems to me. I wish our culture as a whole tried to understand and respect the elderly more. Unfortunately, we don’t. Yet another blemish on the face of American society.