Tag Archives: Elder Care

Singing and Stones

by Kate

I have been singing a strange tune. Twice a month I play the harp in a large sunlit room in the locked down Memory Care Unit for Alzheimer and Dementia patients up the street from my home. They are a kind and appreciative audience, especially when my toddler daughter twirls and spins to the music, claps, and opens her mouth to sing joyfully along. I haven’t been feeling joyful this month. The toddler has been sick and clinging close for weeks on end, kicking me wildly during long and restless nights. On the opposite end of the age spectrum, the elderly neighbor for whom I am caretaker and de facto nurse fell ill with pneumonia just before Christmas, and has just returned from an extended stint in the hospital and in Rehab. My responsibility to the young and the old has left me feeling unusually drained and weary, and as though I have little left to give.

So I am singing a lullaby. I’ve been learning lots of lullabies on the harp lately, as the toddler and the elderly audience are equally appreciative of them. When my daughter was born my mother gave me a beautiful illustrated book of lullabies from all over the world, and I’ve slowly been discovering new and beautiful songs. The one I stumbled across yesterday and have been singing ever since is from Scotland. It’s a strange little song, with a raw honesty to the lyrics and a bit of a bleat of despair in the melody that struck a chord in me. Here are the lyrics:

O Can Ye Sew Curtains

O Can Ye Sew Cushions? And can ye sew sheets?
And can ye sing ballooloo when the bairn greets?
And hee and haw birdie, and hee and haw lamb;
And hee and haw, birdie, my bonnie wee lamb!

Chorus:
Hey-o, way-o, what will I do wi’ ye?
Black’s the life that I lead wi’ ye;
Many o’ ye, Little for to gie ye.
Hey-o, way-o, what will I do wi’ you?

Now hush a baw lammie, and hush a baw dear,
Now hush a baw lammie, thy minnie is here.
The wild wind is ravin’, thy minnie’s heart sair,
The wild wind is ravin’, but ye dinna care.

Somehow, singing this song is a great relief. It seems to lessen the weight of the toddler who is even now clinging to my neck. All of this has made me think about my father and the stone. Unlike many men his age, my father is not retired and living a peaceful life with the prospect of grandchildren to brighten his days. Instead, he is a full time farmer tilling the soil and toiling to turn organic produce into profits. With two children still in high school, a rotating cast of  twentysomethings camping out in the attic, and two elderly people living in the back rooms the big white farmhouse is still bursting at the seams. Still, I know that my father is grateful for his life- for his good work, his land, his home, perhaps especially his wife. I asked him over Christmas if he was grateful for his children as well. He hesitated. and said “My children are a stone upon my chest.”

I know that my father loves us, but he has a lot in common with the Scottish mother sewing curtains long ago. Raising nine children has always been hard,  and doing so on one income is a Herculean feat in this day and age. The prospect of launching nine lives successfully into the world is a daunting one. As my father would tell you, his battle is not finished by any means. He is still carrying that weight. And so, the day before Christmas, I headed down to the barn and pulled up a heavy slab of sandstone. I took it into the house and inscribed a message on the front, and then turned it over and had all of my siblings sign the back. We wrapped it, left it under the tree, and dragged it out to present to my father on Christmas morning.

My father loves that stone. Mom says he lays on the couch now and then with it balanced across his broad chest, just to feel the weight. He says it feels right. I believe that it feels like singing that Scottish lullaby. There is a powerful release in singing out the darkness- and in doing so, there is room for new hope.

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A Family Friend So Dear to Us

by Clare

This man is crazy. But in a good way.

Peter Drake has been living with us since I was five years old, and I can barely, if at all, remember a time when he wasn’t in our house. At times this makes me angry, feeling that I shouldn’t have to share my family and my home all my life with a man who’s not even related. But I know that Peter has been nothing but a gift to us, and living here has been a giant blessing for him.

Peter is a very eccentric person, truly one of a kind. After leaving the Navy, he spent much of his money buying an encyclopedia set and read the entire thing. And somehow he retained all that knowledge, spouting out things most people will never know. He loves digging into visitor’s family backgrounds, and gets awful excited when he finds something interesting (he loves to tell everyone about how he is 1/32 African American). He often comments on how much he’s enjoyed meeting our family and our family’s friends, and how these people are some of the best he’s ever met. He especially enjoys telling Ole and Lena jokes, which are always a crowd pleaser.

He grew up in what was probably the craziest town with the craziest people who ever lived, and the stories he tells about his younger days are things you’d think only happen with characters from a ridiculous Hollywood film. A lover of all things Norwegian, he often attends Norwegian events in the area, and loves parish lutefisk suppers.

Peter is not a picky person to house. He eats pretty much everything we serve, and loves it, and it very quiet and peaceful. Except for when he is on the phone. I think he think that for the person on the other line to hear you, you have to shout very loudly and distinctly into the phone. It’s kind of amusing. He only complains when his heater is not heating his room well enough, or if, God forbid, the coffee runs out. For Peter, when the coffee runs out, the world stops.

Peter’s a hater of sports, and couldn’t care less about any of it. My dad teases him terribly about it, asking him if he’s been keeping up with the Green Bay Packers, and if he thinks they’re defense is off or not. This disturbs Peter greatly, and makes him raise his voice and shake is head and state , “I don’t know, I don’t know!” There are often a few swear words mixed in too. Swear words are a regular part of Peter’s vocabulary. I think it’s just a habit. He and my dad have kind of a love-hate relationship. They’ve been friends for years, and my Dad’s the reason Peter’s not still stuck in a nursing home.

He’s also extremely generous, and is always giving away Social Security money to a worthy cause. A convert to Catholicism, he sometimes has trouble making it over across the road to church, because he’s often struck with a sudden dizziness that inhibits him from making the long walk. We call it dizzy disease, but we should call it a mental disease, because its all in his head. There’s nothing wrong with him really.

Fact is, I could tell you a million things about Peter Drake, and I’d still have more to say about him. He’s a character alright, and we’re sure glad to know him.

Happy Birthday, Peter Drake!

Enough

by Kate

Several times a day I push open an old wooden gate with my hip and slip through an old fashioned garden, dodging brambles and an antique clothesline pole. I climb a set of stone grey steps and open the white screen door, calling out a greeting to Teresa.

Teresa is in her mid seventies, white haired with bright blue eyes, half her teeth, and a thick Polish accent. She was born on a prosperous farm in Poland just before the Germans arrived. Her family fled when she was a toddler, following a path of Polish refugees from Russia to France to England and evetually to settle here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her only sister died during their journey. Her parents died ten years ago. A few years later she was on her way to church and slipped on the icy stone steps behind her house and broke her knee. She moves with difficulty and heavy dependence on a walker these days. She spends a great deal of time sitting still, often with a rosary moving through her fingers.

Teresa loves cheeseburgers, and so several times a week I head down the hill and across the intersection choked with rush hour traffic to fetch her a meal from Wendy’s. This is very good for combating my tendency towards pride, because I am mildly mortified by the thought that my neighbors believe that I deign to eat fast food. I am hardly lacking in vices, and it doesn’t bother me in the least that every clerk in the wine store around the corner knows my daughter’s name, but my organic family farming roots make me cringe as I head into the Wendy’s with the baby for the third day in a row.

Last week I was standing in line engrossed in watching the soap operatic drama of the restaurant staff unfold before me and reeling off the regular order of a small cheeseburger to go. After I’d finished, the cashier automatically asked me if I would be interested in giving a dollar for adoption and getting ten free frosties. I think I narrowed my eyes a little as I silently shook my head no. In my mind, I was thinking: I gave up my first child for adoption. Isn’t that enough?

It wasn’t a rational response at all. It was a deep in the gut, knee jerk reaction. As my husband (who is incredibly supportive of me and of my experience with adoption) pointed out, I was so wrapped up in my own story that I ignored the prospect of ten free frosties, which is a crazy thing to do. He was pretty sad about the lost frosties.

 I think it is great that Wendy’s supports adoption, and also great that they are handing out free frosties. The thing about supporting adoption, though, is that the story of the birthmother is so often missing. I was silent, that day. A tall silent woman with a baby in a sling and a handsome husband at home. There was no chance that the cashier at Wendy’s would even consider that the woman standing in front of her had given a daughter up for adoption ten years ago. Placing a child for adoption shapes and shifts your life forever, but leaves no visible scars or signs on the outside of your body.

Ten and a half years ago, I took a train to visit the couple who would become the parents of my child. I stared out the window and bit my lip, racking my brains in an effort to figure out what I wanted to ask them, what I wanted to learn from them. After an hour or two I was struck with the realization that what I really wanted was for them to see me as a person- an intelligent, college educated, passionate, loving person who was a whole lot like them. I wanted to fight the hazy conception of a birth mother that pervaded even my conception of the term. I was afraid that they would assume that because I was placing my child for adoption, I was a failure, or a drug addict, or lacking in love. I wanted them to know that I was like them. I needed them to know this, so that someday they could tell this to my child.

Ten years later, I am at ease with the amazing couple who adopted my child, and with the way that placing my first child for adoption shaped my life. I am not at ease with the way that adoption is often discussed. I believe that the story of  the birth mother is one that should be discussed more openly, with a greater complexity and compassion. I have been inspired by the great eloquence and intelligence of bloggers like Adoption in the CityThe Happiest Sad, Chronicles of Munchkinland, and Lia-Not Juno, all of who share their stories as birth mothers. I could never write a blog entirely about adoption- I could never write a blog entirely about anything, I’m far too flighty and far flung in my interests- but I do believe that it is important that I share my story, and find my voice as a birth mother. And for now, that will be enough.

Canterbury Castle in the Sky

by Kate

 I read too much. I know the current emphasis is all on coaxing and bribing kids to read more, as though reading is an unalloyed virtue in and of itself. It isn’t. There are lots of trashy and downright awful books out there along with the good ones, and then there are the reams of  pure fluff. Sometimes I compare and contrast the current vogue for praising any and all reading with the stern Victorian admonitions against novels and wonder which school of thought is more realistic.  In any case, reading is an incredibly effective escapist past-time, which comes in really handy when you are growing up in a howling mob of nine children. My father, who never attends a sports event without a stack of magazines and library books, can attest to this.

The exorbitant amount of time that I spent reading while growing up fed an equally extravagent imagination.  I ran through the woods in torn silk remnents of bridesmaids dresses which caught on brambles and burrs but didn’t deter me from the palace grounds of my imagination. When I was 15, I became enamoured of donning a long thick cloak and wafting about the ridgetops in the mist, singing little ballads and pretending I was in Ireland. My brothers, who milked cows and had actual social interactions with our neighbors, were deeply humiliated and begged me to stop.

Luckily for me, I have been able to take this penchant for bringing the drama of novels into ordinary life and channel it into my work as a harpist. When I play the harp in public I make sure to dress the part. Voluminous ballgowns, pearls, hair flowing down the middle of my back- it adds much more depth to the performance, in my opinion, and also makes up for my rather mediocre skills and repertoire. I really think it works. I may not be a virtouso, but I am confident that I bring joy to the audiences I play for. These audiences are often made up of senior citizens, at retirement homes. Many of them are partially deaf. In that case the costume is more than half of the performance.

Recently I have begun playing often at Canterbury Place, a huge rambling stone and glass structure at the top of the steep hill running up my street. The original building was an Episcopal Church Home built 150 years ago as a home for orphans and elderly women living in genteel poverty. In the 1980’s, a massive addition was completed, with a glass walled aerie six floors up overlooking the city of Pittsburgh.

The only picture that I have that shows the size of the whole building is this one, with Canterbury Place in the background.

Yesterday, I was asked to play for the cocktail hour preceding a candlelight dinner for the residents. My harp was already there, tucked in a corner of the tiny historic 150 year old chapel, so I threw on a (wrinkled) hot pink 1940’s style ballgown and billowed up the street. I took the elevator up to the sixth floor, somehow managing to cart my harp, music stand, two large bags, and a camera.

I set the harp up in a large room with a fireplace, plate glass windows, and an ice sculpture.

I set the harp next to a massive antique grand piano, towering potted plant, and fantastic view. I apologize for the low quality of the pictoral evidence, as I was busy playing the harp and negotiating the swirling folds of my dress.

After playing, I wandered through the library.

And looked out the windows, trying and failing to capture the beauty of the view.

Here is a little story for you. A few years ago I worked in an office. At night, I curled up in an old armchair and drank wine and read the entire works of Jane Austen. I’d only read Pride and Prejudice growing up, and due to an unfortunate Christmas present that you can ask Colleen about, I happened to possess several of the rest of her novels. I spent a full month or two wandering through the mansions of Austen’s world, and at work I would stare past my computer and into space, dreaming about living in a huge rambling old mansion, wandering through the corridors into the library, reading and playing the harp, having genteel conversations and taking walks in the rain. (Here I go again with the walking in the rain. I blame the books entirely.) I couldn’t imagine an existence wherein those were my only responsibilities. I still can’t, although I have been startled in the past couple years by how often the pattern of my life has taken those rough forms, much more than it resembles my time in an office. However, I am thrilled by the fact that by dint of my side job as a harpist at a genteel senior citizens community, I regularly wander through unknown corriders into libraries with sweeping views of the city, play upon the harp in salons with large chandeliers, and perhaps best of all sweep down the staircase in a trailing ballgown. Even if it is wrinkled.

I am constantly amazed and amused by the manner in which dreams turn to reality.

Working in Season

by Kate

In Wisconsin, my sister is climbing the boughs of apple trees in the orchard and pulling berries from the raspberry patch. She is cutting and preserving fruit and making jam and applesauce. Her hands are busy with this work. Here in the city the peaches have fallen from the tree behind my house. They are heavy and ripe, hit the ground with a thud and roll underfoot as I rush by. Last year I spent weeks on my back porch peeling and preserving peaches, baking peach crisps and pies and tarts. I was dizzy with the abundance of sweetness and wanted to capture every single peach to last through the long winter. This year, most of the peach season has slipped away. I am passing by fallen peaches every day, pushing through and old wooden gate and down another garden path and into the home of an elderly Polish woman who needs cleaning and cooking and conversation more than I need a freezer full of peaches.

Somehow without seeking I have slipped into a season of service to the elderly. When I came to Pittsburgh, I dreamed that I would play the harp in a ballgown at society weddings- and I have. What I didn’t expect was that I would play the harp with a baby on my lap in a locked down Memory Unit. What I didn’t expect was how much I would come to love playing for these people- some sleeping, some dreaming, some with faces alive and alight with joy as the songs and poetry bring memories of love and joy and sorrow back to life. I had no idea that I would learn so much about flexibility in mind and body from men and women in wheelchairs in my Gentle Stretch class. Living so far from home and from family, I never imagined that my daughter would be given so many generous and loving acting grandparents.

Yesterday someone asked me if I had always planned to work with old people. I laughed, and said not at all. I married and moved to this home, on this street, with peach trees and Polish ladies in the backyard and a huge old mansion turned multimillion dollar old folks home at the top of the hill five minutes up the street. Somehow the harp playing and dancing and eldest of nine children cooking and cleaning and farm strength all combined to make me the right person to reach out and pick an old man up off the floor, make a fresh bed for a shut-in woman, cajole a group of arthritic and depressed people to stretch a bit more than they think they can, and play a song that reminds a bright eyed woman beset with Alzheimers that she sang it at her son’s wedding.

A few years ago, I worked in the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina. I lived in a one room cabin and drove over twisting mountain passes meeting farmers, taking pictures, and working with restaurants and grocery chains and schools and hospitals to connect  local produce to local markets. It was great work, spreading the message that supporting farmers and eating fresh local food in season is important for the health of the individual, the community, and the land. I believe that food should be local, and seasonal. I believe that in many ways work should be seasonal too. The work on a farm is not static and unchanging. Some of the work is entirely physical, with calloused hands hard at work while the mind is free to reflect, and some of the work involves intricate planning.  Tasks shift along with the seasons.  There are days of hard labor from dawn to dusk and frozen winters when the soil is buried deep and resting, and the farmer is forced to rest as well.

For me, the concept of working in seasons means being open to using the talents that I have been given in different ways at many different times. The variety of  my work has made it far more joyful. These days I miss my farmers, but I love my old people. This year the peaches have fallen unpicked, but next year they will come again. Next year, perhaps I will have a season full of time to preserve them.