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Miriam saw me sitting outside her room and waved. She came out, looking like a little girl, with her short cotton nightshirt and white socks. She stood in front of me, brought her hands to shoulder height, palms up, and uttered her refrain, “I don’t know what to do.” Then she looked down at her nightshirt, delicately pinched the fabric, raising it a few inches, and asked, “What should I do with this?” The wrinkles above her knees fell in cascades like rumpled lace. I wanted to gather her up in my arms and hold her.

Instead, I suggested that she sit in the living room and watch television. I told her that her nightshirt was lovely, and she didn’t need to do anything with it but leave it on.

Miriam is one of my father’s new neighbors. They, along with close to thirty other men and women, are residents of a “memory care” unit in an assisted living facility. It was on the second or third evening of my father’s entrance into the facility that I discovered that Miriam has a loop inside her mind that has her constantly stating, “I don’t know what to do,” and asking others for direction. Miriam is probably one of those feisty, capable women who spent much of her life being busy, involved with some activity. Her mental confusion leaves her with a terrible loss.

On my father’s first night in this facility, when my sister and I brought him in, I was assaulted with new images, many of which made me want to walk—or run—away. We each held one of my father’s hands and escorted him into the dining room. My mother had told my father that she could no longer care for him at home, so this was a necessary move. But any explanations offered an hour ago, or a few minutes ago, were lost.

As soon as we entered the dining room, my father knew he’d been had. My sister and I had told him we going to dinner. But, this was no restaurant, and he knew it. A third of the diners were sitting in wheel chairs. Some were asleep. One was slumped over her plate.

My father’s strong and abiding sense of social propriety prevented him from making a scene, but he let my sister and me know he was not a happy camper. He pulled on my hand and I turned to see his face. His jaws were locked. He hissed, “Shit. S-H-I-T.” We proceeded to the table. My sister and I sat on either side of him and prompted him to begin eating his dinner—a sandwich, salad, and chips. After several minutes he leaned toward my sister and said, “There are a lot of elderly people here, a lot older than I am.” He seemed as horrified as I was.

How quickly things can change. In less than a week, my father stopped asking about leaving the facility. He stopped threatening me with his cane if I didn’t bring my red truck around to take him home. I visit now in the evenings. Sometimes, when I offer him the protein drink he’s loved for years, he can’t remember what it is. But, when I bring it to him, he accepts it graciously, always offers me some, and relishes the sweet, chocolate liquid. He smiles at the setting sun when I take him outside. He tells me to drive safely when I tell him I’m heading home.

For the first few days of my father’s confinement here, I flew out the door of the locked unit when I ended my visits, savoring my freedom, the “normalness” of the world outside. Then my perspective changed. Maybe it was Miriam and my affection for her, the kindness of the caregivers, or my father’s acceptance of his situation. Almost six weeks later, the world inside the unit has become familiar and normal in its own right. The caregivers are kind and patient, forgiving the occasional profanities, the belligerence that even my Southern-gentlemanly father can show. The devotion of family members is touching; and the residents are just people, with eccentricities and endearing traits.

Last night Miriam was wearing a lovely coral-colored sweater. “I don’t know what to do,” she said, and I suggested she go to the living room where others were sitting. I complimented her sweater and asked her if she’d had it a long time. “It’s pretty old,” she said, “but not too old.”

I suspect that describes us all: pretty old, but not too old.

When I began this blog over a year ago, I was holding on to my worries about aging and wrinkled skin like a child clutching an old rag doll. I’ve made some strides since then, managing, at times, to find genuine beauty in the creases and lines that life leaves on our fleshy surfaces. Losing one’s glowing, youthfully smooth epidermis is one thing. Losing one’s memory and capacity to reason is another. Wrinkles, shminkles. Vanity is a silly old doll. Time for me to let her go.

Like the wrinkles around Miriam’s knees, life is often rumpled. But, it’s lace, nonetheless. And, it’s okay not to know what to do.

Please also see my writing at http://madwomandancing.wordpress.com, at http://dancetheriver.wordpress.com, and at www.elderwomenmusings.com.

even old things bloom

by Ellen Hamilton

I am looking for the beauty in wrinkles, those maligned signs of aging. Peering into the mirror at my own fears and prejudices, I hope to write some new songs about living in the land of the wrinkled, the wobbly, and brave. I welcome your comments and input about your own experience with aging and your struggles and successes in finding beauty in your wrinkles.

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