Balance Points

Independence and Age

Independence and IsolationLucille (I’ll call her that) is intelligent, clear-thinking, and business-like. She is never strident or bombastic. She has always assumed roles with an ease that conveys to others immense capability. In that sense, Lucille is what I would call a “natural leader” – not a cheerleader who rallies supporters or a promoter of her abilities or her character traits, but a person whom you trust to take charge and see to getting the job done.

At least, that has been the Lucille whom I have known – who has just turned 80.

Six years ago, I became aware of another side of Lucille: the facet that was becoming overwhelmed by the limitations of her body and the complexities of her environment. When I stopped by her home, I noticed piles of books and papers and music media, dust gathering in corners, paint peeling from long-untreated surfaces, and the ever-well-intentioned vacuum cleaner disappearing into the clutter and – yes, we’ll be honest, dirt – of its surroundings. Lucille herself at the time was having trouble getting around because of an onset of physical pain. Her attention to her appearance was minimal.

Unfortunately, this condition was no shock to me. It had been happening to my father, and it formed the backdrop for my internal struggle of what to do in that situation – for him and for myself and for us.

Here was the dilemma: like my father, Lucille was still the same person – independent, alert, capable of managing her finances. Her environment then, while deteriorating, was not dangerous. One could offer help – and sometimes, she would accept it – but to “take over” was both inappropriate and disrespectful. Particularly for me, as my relationship with Lucille was familiar, but in no way intimate.

Lucille has no close living relatives. She never married and has no children. In the normal way of things, she developed peer friendships that sustained her until age and illness removed most of them from her sphere. She has many people who care about her on her block and in the organizations to which she belongs, but she was always her own person. And in terms of responsibility, she is very much alone.

Among those who care about Lucille are some who grew aware that more than her house was being neglected. Unbeknownst to me, Lucille had not had a primary care physician for some time. She put off visiting medical providers for reasons no one is sure of – it could be as simple as feeling it was an irritating way to spend a day, or as complicated as fear and confusion over what to do – and didn’t want to direct too much attention to what seemed to be small, if annoying, changes to her body. Some of her more forceful contacts urged her to see a doctor; but ultimately, no one was in a legal position to assume responsibility, and her great individuality and capability prompted many to leave it at the initial exhortation.

Recently, Lucille lost her balance and fell, breaking her wrist. My offers of help for some basic tasks were gratefully accepted, and a few of us were able to edge closer to her. Hence I found out quickly that she’d admitted herself to the hospital with sudden, extreme pain. But when I contacted the hospital to visit her, I discovered she was no longer there – and under HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), they could not tell me more than that.

To an unmarried, childless, only child at midlife, it was one of those moments of blinding realization: it is remarkably easy to vanish – from everyone but creditors. How do you do it? Just get old on your own.

To be independent, to take responsibility for oneself, to live as one wants without outside interventions, to maintain privacy – all are ideals much lauded, and fought for, in U.S. sociopolitical discourse. Many embrace these values as absolutes, while losing sight of the fact that they ultimately are not something we can control. Sudden illness, accidents, natural catastrophes, and warfare may well disrupt our intentions; aging most certainly will.

Yet we do not have to embrace this very basic, much avoided fact of life with enduring anger, frustration, and frantic activity to “fix it.” I think the appropriate place to reconnect with our fundamental humanness, our vulnerability, and – paradoxically – our strength is by opening ourselves to that anxiety and letting it teach us. In its midst, suggestions come: plans to maintain better contacts and connections for ourselves in old age; compassion for the Lucilles of our world and patience to take time to be with them; humility in the face of a life that is far vaster than anything we can control, and respect and gratitude for the diverse facets of that broad experience.

I tracked Lucille down by violating my own internal boundary of privacy and respect for the same, and knocking on doors until I could locate someone to tell me where she was. In doing so, I learned that her condition has become much more serious and complicated to address than any of us had known. I pondered what this means for independent-minded, capable people: to find ourselves suddenly so much closer to that horizon, removed from all that is familiar and comforting in our surroundings, and unsure with whom we can connect. Another paradox: in such a moment, we are both dependent and independent, reliant and solidly alone amid mortal comforts.

This has been my journey recently, and I am very much on the small footpath of it. I see Lucille at least once a week. Mostly, I let her talk about herself. I imbibe a history and life details I never knew about her before: from a childhood in Pennsylvania Dutch country, through education at a respected women’s college, into a career assisting physicians with medical records. I hear about people and places both familiar and strange to me. At times, I find myself identifying strongly with her feelings of surprise at human behavior generally, her irritation with herself, her frustration with a highly uncommunicative (though certainly overextended) medical establishment that dispenses care in pills and scans, rarely in information and listening and patience. We review shared memories and fill in each other’s gaps. We laugh together.

To the Christian, this is a sign of grace – that we are never alone in the abiding love that is God. It is not simply an intellectual or emotional consciousness of God’s love, affirmed in solitude – a “nice thought.” It is the activity of that love through people, in ways both simple and dramatic, that comes to us when and where we are most vulnerable, that seeks us out, that knows us intimately, that sits with us when we are lonely and teaches us the variety and value of each human life shared. Lucille’s humanity renews me as much as I hope to be a source of comfort to her. That interaction is grace.

In her later years, we are getting to know each other. And it is rich indeed.

There are many Lucilles, and in far more challenging circumstances, in our society and around the world. Their lives are unique and precious. They are individuals younger and older, single and married and in partnerships, childless and with children.

The Reverend Heidi Neumark, longtime pastor of the Spanish Lutheran Church of the Transfiguration in the Bronx, vividly documented her own unique life and those of many of her congregation and community in her remarkable 2004 book Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx – an account that still challenges me to step away from the generalizations and toward the particularity of our existence. You’ll hear more about it; for now, I recommend it to those who considering how to embark on their own journeys.

2 thoughts on “Balance Points

  1. Audrey J.

    What a sad story… I hope Lucille is doing better. I’m sure she cherishes the company and those moments she shares with you. Sometimes violating your own boundaries is a good thing.
    It scares me when I ready stories like this and I look at my own life: single, no kids… Sometimes, in my own utopia, we would create communities where people like us would gather and pledge to be there for one another when we get old… Not too far from the Golden Girls… Haha…

    • Joanna Mullins Post author

      That “Golden Girls” vision is a lovely one, and one I have also sometimes! It is a scary moment; the only response I know to it is to love more, and maybe more boldly. (It can be training in locating my harder habits, too.) Lucille is holding her own at the moment, and we hope for some positive news in her treatment and care. :)

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