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Couch-surfing in a Retirement Residence

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This is the fourth of five winning entries in the 2013 Winnipeg Free Press/ Writers’ Collective Non-Fiction Contest.

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This is the fourth of five winning entries in the 2013 Winnipeg Free Press/ Writers’ Collective Non-Fiction Contest.

When couch-surfing in a retirement residence, it's important to move more slowly. If you're any younger than 60, you're likely to stick out, but embracing slow will blunt your intrusion. You can't help being a poodle in a room full of cats, but you can at least keep your barking to a minimum while your neighbours enjoy the sun at the windowsill.

If you get caught behind someone in the hallway, don't try to pass. Don't shuffle at their heels, looking for an opening. Assume they know best. Assume they have something to teach you. If the person obstructing your path is using a cane or a walker, take note of their technique and the details of the technology. Does the bearer hold the cane handle away from her body, or does she prop it against her hip for added stability? Does the walker have four wheels, two wheels or none? Does clutching the levers on the handles engage the brakes or release them? A good number of us have a walking aid in our future -- it might be useful to see how they work.

Patience in the halls may lead to excess stores of energy; I recommend heading to the pool to expel it. It's likely you will find the pool a bit smaller than required. It may even lack a deep end. Do not fret. There are ways to adapt. Seniors must adapt to a world where language and technology are not as they were, so when you visit a seniors home you, too, can adjust. One option is to swim circles instead of laps. Switch directions after a minute or two to ensure that your body gets a balanced workout. This also increases difficulty, since you'll build up a current flowing clockwise, then swim against it when you turn around. However, if you're like me and find yourself discombobulated when swimming in circles, I have an alternate solution. Warm up your arms by paddling with a flotation device between your dead legs, then warm up your legs by kicking with a flotation device in your hands. Once you're warm (which should happen quickly given the likely temperature of the pool) engage in some high-powered resistance training by kicking forward with your legs and sweeping backwards with your arms. The two counteracting motions should make turns less frequent. If any residents should happen to witness your counterproductive flailing in the pool, do not worry. They will probably attribute your embarrassing behaviour to the quirks of your generation and not think any less of you as an individual.

From my experience, individuals in their 20s will always stick out within the confines of a retirement home, but their presence is not uncommon in short spurts. What becomes suspicious is any visit that lasts longer than four hours. It's like finding a sparrow inside the house -- once is a delight; repeated, it becomes a concern. When I entered the residence the first time, with a backpack on my back and a backpack on my front, I stopped at the front desk, because I thought it was security. But the nurse there just waved me on to the elevators. On Day 2, I passed through the automatic doors without issue and even found a staircase so I didn't have to clog the elevators. The staircase was not easy to find.

On the evening of Day 3, I had trouble activating the automatic doors. The doors had always been troublesome, since they were designed for someone walking more slowly than me. I'd trip the sensor OK, but reach the door before it was sufficiently open. No matter, though, we've already discussed the merits of patience.

On the evening of Day 3, I passed through the exterior door without difficulty, but could not gain access to the lobby. I stepped back and walked forward again, more slowly. I noticed a HELP button, but didn't want to press it. I stared at the sensor above the door. I stared at another black orb in the corner of the ceiling. I walked backward, then forward, then backward. The door opened. I headed for the stairs, but a woman at the front desk called out to me.

"Do you know someone here?"

"Yes, I'm staying with Mr. Attas."

My grandpa had only just moved in, though, and the staff was unfamiliar with him. Then a small man popped his head out from a back room. I'd met him before.

"Oh, yes, she's the granddaughter."

That's right. I'm THE granddaughter.

My days at the retirement residence were filled with small milestones. Waking up was its own event, entirely separate from breakfast. There was the paper to read (cover to cover), and then the crossword. If it was early in the week, we could tackle the New York Times puzzle as well as the local game. By Thursday, we didn't have a hope with the Times. There were interruptions when the phone rang, or when one of us had to go to the bathroom. One of the players from my grandfather's afternoon bridge game called in sick; that spawned four phone calls to find a replacement. Before the crosswords were finished, it was time for lunch, but before we could eat lunch, we had to prepare it. Then perhaps a nap, the aforementioned bridge game, and then 5 p.m. drinks. Five o'clock drinks were not to be prepared a moment before the hour and were never forgotten past 5:03 p.m. I liked five o'clock drinks. They came with a little bowl of peanuts.

Dinner was my favourite time of day. It was served on the main floor in a dining room decorated in gold hues. Some might call it beige, but I'd challenge them. The place glittered. Even the chairs glittered, in their own subtle way. The chairs were also different from average restaurant chairs in that they had arms. It looked like most of the diners appreciated that. With arms, you didn't have to worry about engaging your abdominal muscles just to stay upright. I'd imagine that would be a very distracting thing to have to worry about while trying to eat dinner. I'd imagine I'd like arms on my dining chair once my body started to give up on me. The chairs did, however, force me to slouch. The only way to avoid that was to perch on the edge.

The food covered a surprising range, from 1950s comforts to contemporary fine dining. On the first night, I had an exquisite flame-roasted shrimp skewer with hollandaise sauce and gorgeous smears of squash and mashed potato. On the second night, I had a caesar salad with too much dressing and a rubbery chicken breast. My grandfather had a steak and french fries that looked like they came from a plastic bag. Food from plastic bags was big in the '50s.

But dinner wasn't about the food. Dinner was about the gentleman sitting at the head of a table of women, who stood up from every meal saying "Ladies it has been a pleasure, as always." It was about the woman who moaned every time the busboy rattled glassware and the man who flirted with the waitress. Then there was the woman a little younger than me who sat across from someone who looked to be her grandmother. Her silk shirt and broach would make her the height of hipster fashion on the city streets, and yet the retro look pulled her effortlessly into this gold dining room. The shirt could even have been her grandmother's.

Everyone was dressed up -- the men in suits and sweaters, the women in floral prints and beige orthopedic shoes. But not all the women. And that was my greatest comfort. Some wore what we've come to expect as the uniform of old age, but I suspect these women were always slaves to fashion, wearing whatever the bland stores offered their age group. Those who rebelled didn't stop rebelling just because they'd gotten old. The funky women were still funky, the women who used to be a cut above were still classy. Yes, all of their grey hair was cut short, but not everyone had a puffy coif. I picked a favourite to keep in my mind as I advance in years, a reminder that, though I will age, I will still be me. She had side-swept gunmetal hair, cool glasses and a silk scarf tied around her neck in the way I've always wanted to try but never had the guts. I wanted to know her, wanted to chat with her at cocktail parties 60 years ago.

We walked past her on our way out of the restaurant, and she turned to speak with my grandfather. "This is the woman I was telling you about," my grandfather said, "the one who I haven't seen since her husband's funeral 20 years ago." My grandfather knew the coolest woman in the room. "Your grandmother and I used to go out to cocktail parties with her."

 

 

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 30, 2013 A9

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