Learning Inter-dependence

aging in place at home senior

One’s survival in this world is largely dependent on others but one’s happiness is solely dependent on oneself.

~ Marty Rubin

 

Aging in Place

I recently lost yet another older adult in the family; George (85) was my mother’s cousin and we all just called him “Cousin George.” He was a lifelong bachelor who we saw on Holidays and who remained fairly secluded the rest of the year. But family meant something to him and every Christmas he would show up at the door peering over mountains of packages in his arms. He was the kind of-guy who would shop all year long for just the right gifts for each of us—and he was generous to a fault. He filled the room with joy and enchanting conversation. Whatever topics/pursuits George embraced he did so fully, and the result was an encyclopedic knowledge with which he shared enthusiastically and at times, almost breathlessly. His presence was big and infectious, and he saved many a Holiday from falling into routine and dysfunctional family issues.

Getting Know Real George

As a kid I knew George was in banking, he was intelligent to the point of being intimidating (but never intentionally), he loved and collected rare cars, invested well, enjoyed motorcycles—Harley specifically, in fact he was a partner in a longtime dealership and we all benefited from that relationship, and he was also a classic music Disc jockey on a local radio station for years. At a distance he always seemed exotic to me in my child’s eye, quick witted, self-assured, expansive vocabulary, but elusive and private to some degree. There was a part of him he kept to himself and his boundaries were respected by family. But he was different, in a good way, for example he wore ties to work. No one in my immediate family did that, we were factory workers. Every birthday we would pick out a tie for George and it was a fun ritual we all participated in. To my dying day I will always proud to have been related to such a man.

It was not until his later years that I found out he had severed his country in the Army, something he never talked about. I also learned he had a lifelong competitive relationship with his older brother. That bar was high because this older brother was a high achiever, a pilot in the military, lawyer, MENSA member, and an equally daunting presence. This brotherly competition continued even after his brother’s passing (seems he was counting the days he out-lived him, now that is competitive!). George had lost his father at an early age, he feels that was due to hard stress filled days running a tavern/restaurant, and he learned to love and respect the man who his beloved mother remarried. These experiences informed him and influenced the choices he made later in life.

Best-Worst Experience

Not long ago he began a medical journey that introduced him to the labyrinth that is the United States health care system. His acute condition was mismanaged and caused complications that eventually lead to his passing. This process took close to 2 years to unfold and it was frustrating for those of us who loved him and tried to help. Having said this, his conditions caused him to become “inter-dependent” on others for care. This turned out to be a “best-worse” condition in that he learned (reluctantly at first) to let others who cared for him step in and assist in care. A life-long bachelor and independent guy suddenly found himself capitulating to hired in-home helpers and relying on family.

Suddenly, George had visitors and weekly sessions with guests that came to his home, trips to the health club, dinners out, microbrew afternoons, car rides, park visits, pizza evenings, slumber parties with family, and he made five new friends towards the end of his life. How many people 85 years old make five new friends who care about them, visit, keep in touch and engage through social media? All these unintended consequences were positives in George’s life! In a sense, his disease process opened his world to new people and experiences.

Life-Review

The extra time we got with George was rich with tales of his life experiences which provided us with insights into who he was as a human being. For example, one afternoon I had brought over a guest to meet George, Rama is a good friend, towering intellect, and happens to also be a doctor. I knew the afternoon would be enchanting listening to them get to know one another—and I was not disappointed. The conversation turned to current events and George shared a story of his experience as a banker in Corvallis, Oregon in the 1960’s. Corvallis is the home of Oregon State University and at that time the head coach was a man known to be racist (a fact verified to us by an Hawaiian gentleman in Maui who played football in that same era; I also grew up knowing this fact as well)—in fact, the town in the 1960’s was not a welcoming place for people of color.

An African American who had played football on the OSU team wanted to settle down in Corvallis after his playing days were completed. His goal was to start a business, but no one in town would give him a business loan. George reported that the ex-OSU football player entered his bank and requested the loan. George said he looked at the numbers and they all penciled out— “Of COURSE YOU WILL GET YOUR LOAN,” and he did. For years George said every time the man saw him downtown, he yelled across the street “Hey, there is George C________, the guy who gave me the business loan!” That gentleman, according to George, went on to have a successful business and passed it on to his family. George was not a racist, he was a pragmatist, and this story was just part of his Legacy.

I wanted more time with George, he was battling symptoms from an infection caused by his now chronic condition, and it sadly got the better of him. I was with him on his last doctor’s visit and we had planned a course of action to turn his health around with new treatments and better medical support—however he passed suddenly the day after I left him to his capable caregiver. We had did what we could and of course felt we could have done more; I selfishly wanted him around a bit longer, but it was not to be…

In cleaning out his home after his passing I encountered more clues to who he was. This can often happen for those left behind, bread crumbs lead to a fuller story that may never have reached daylight while they were alive. George had a parallel secret life, one we suspected, but he kept private. These discoveries will find their place in the minds and hearts of survivors–and his memory profile is now more complete. He knew full well that these clues would be found and his full story would be embraced by some and rejected by others–but it would, in the end, be known.

My last exchange with George, after a tough and exhausting 48 hours (for both of us), was his reaching out his hand to shake and looked me directly in the eye and said, “Thanks Pat!” I replied, “My pleasure, George!” and it was such a pleasure knowing him, not just for decades, but even more in the last precious months of his life. He will be missed…

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