My great grandfather is the patriarch of the family, the eldest bald man in a long line of strange-minded individuals. Since retirement kicked off thirty years ago, Grandpa starts his day off with a cup of coffee and a few overly hot-sauced eggs, peeking in the closet to see which golf outfit it'll be.
There's an effortless swagger to the way he hikes up those pleated white pants. It's almost as if 90-year-olds measure status by the height of their leather belt, and Patriarch is an alpha when that thing rises above the navel. Looking down at his feet, the finest leather shoes of the 1990's shine on, and you just might catch a glimpse of the pasty white ankles as well. Cracks in that skin are like tree rings, and I see some of that crustiness on my father today.
Patriarch dressed in Navy uniform with his wife Mary, now deceased.
It's funny because right now I want to smother my shins in lotion to keep them from looking so disgusting. Patriarch was never a lotion guy though. Those that served in World War II are too tough for that girly nonsense. In his later years, there's absolutely no trace of shame I can spot when he lets those puppies air out for the flood. The man does whatever he wants, and no one can stop him.
Year after year, the lever on that worn out la-z-boy is pulled right on cue with the Golf Channel's tee-off times. But while the announcers keep the audience hooked with their sexy whispers, background noises in the condo are always changing. Grandkids transition to adults, and great-grandkids too.
One day it's just you and your wife in the living room.
Then, you don't even have the sound of her oxygen tank to keep you company. All that's left is the volume on the remote.
We will all be in that position one day, unless of course the world claims us just as it claimed everyone Patriarch knew. When Mary died he could grab breakfast with Harold, a true pal, but even that soon became him staring up from his plate to an empty chair. There's only so much time a guy can spend stuck in a small town, the last of their age. The only ones able to understand certain childhood references, stuff only those pre-1950's gems like Patriarch would know. Even when I've talked to the man, he's felt the need to feed me those classic old people lines…
"Imagine a world without any television," he says.
"When I was a boy we only had the radio—now can you imagine that?"
He'd allow the question settle for a few seconds, then come back to me with a profound thought.
"We have really come a long way with all the technology haven't we?"
Of course, he's absolutely right with that one, but I gotta say, I hate when old people assume us young ins can't even take a stab at thinking about what things were like before the days of texting. Honestly I have thought a lot about this, and let me be blunt. It would really, really suck. That's all there is to it. But the need for human connection is shared among us all.
In Winchester, Indiana, the obvious solution for a man in Grandpa's position is to pack bags for The Lodge at Summer's Pointe, a place where all the oldies in the surrounding Randolph County region go to die. There, he doesn't have the memories of his old home, but ample room for picture frames. He can spend all day absorbed in Fox News programming, with the comfort of knowing that a staff member is just a button's click away from making the twenty second walk to his room. That assurance is a hot commodity.
According to recent CDC data, 15,600 nursing homes like The Lodge are scattered across the country. In a nation as large as the U.S., the total number of nursing home residents tops 1.5 million people. Certainly a lot of mouths to feed, and a lot of asses to wipe.
Working at The Lodge can have its challenges, but the strange thing about nursing homes in a small town community is the open-aired friendliness on display for all who arrive. On a trip to visit Grandpa, I was greeted at the door by Gary Patterson, an old friend of my father's. Patterson is responsible for maintaining the main living space, where residents gather to eat and engage in highly competitive bingo matches. If someone falls, he has to be there in a hurry. When it's time to eat, Patterson is one of the staff members responsible for alerting tenants with a knock on their door.
In the dining room, a man who has grown so accustomed to isolation finds himself seated with similar people. When it's time for supper, the luxury of conversation supersedes the luxury of a hot meal plopped down on the table for you. Guys like Mr. Eddington and my Grandpa aren't so alone anymore. As a for profit institution, The Lodge at Summer's Pointe's steep monthly payment is all made worth it.
On average, a typical nursing home resident spends $253 a day or $7,698 per month on a private room according to government statistics. These prices are exacerbated by residents who require serious medical spending, particularly those who demand it with great regularity. But regardless, Patriarch's private room comes at a cost.
Ten years ago when my great grandmother died, it was tough. It didn't come as a surprise, but in the time period since, we haven't seen him smile like he does now. At her funeral, Grandpa gave his speech, and talked about his favorite song, "Moonlight Serenade," by Glenn Miller. Together, he and Mary danced to it when they were kids, and the memory of them "swappin' spit" while it played lead Patriarch to press play for all of us at the service.
He still listens to the same big band music. You can hear the orchestral compositions echo all the way down the hall. I'm sure the neighbors aren't thrilled, but in just a short time there, Grandpa has changed The Lodge.
He works closely with the staff, demanding that when you walk in the place, immediate activity reshapes the experience for those living in the community. It's thanks to Patriarch that the karaoke machine is geared up and ready for use. It's still untouched by everyone else, but at least he gets up there for some Sinatra when the boredom sets in.
Quietly tucked in a corner room at the end of the hall, our dear family friend Sue Spencer keeps to her books. The lady is a human church-mouse, very soft and sweet with her vocal delivery. While she hardly tries to bust out of her blanketed 76 degree cage, even she is aware of Patriarch's involvement in the coordination of activities. Fortunately, her widow experience is spent less in isolation.
There's no doubt Patriarch misses his spouse. He has from the moment she left. As I say my goodbyes and crack open the door, he blares those retro tunes. With a hot coffee on the desk and a comfortable position in the recliner, Grandpa delivers a goodbye grin. In a place where people sign on to grow older, the opposite is true for him. He is a renewed spirit.