On Aging: Lonesome Land

Time was that when I called my mother on the telephone it took several attempts to get through because her phone was always busy. She was forever talking to someone  - either my aunt or one of my cousins, or most likely, one of her many “lady friends” who lived in the neighborhood. 

But I can’t remember the last time I got that annoying buzz of the busy signal when I placed a call to her phone number. And it isn’t because she has call waiting or that her phone goes directly to voice mail.

It’s because nearly all of her friends are dead. There’s no one left for her to talk to.

My mom is an only child, so she started out at a disadvantage in terms of a wide family circle. But after she and my dad got divorced, she started taking long walks in the neighborhood. She said these daily walks were her “therapy," and in the course of these “sessions” she met quite a few other women and developed friendships that turned into lunch dates and movie outings and antiquing trips. 

And talking on the phone.

Boy, could these ladies talk!  My mom would go out for the day with one friend, and then come home and get calls from the other six or seven. It reminded me of my teenage years, when I’d come home from school and call all the friends I’d just seen 10 minutes before.

“What in the heck do you all talk about?” I’d ask her, half annoyed, half mystified. On more than one occasion, I hopped into my car and drove around the corner to make sure she was alright after spending hours trying to connect with her on the phone.

“Oh, just things,” she’d say vaguely, “like what’s going on with General Hospital, or the neighborhood news.” In later years, the best friends were the ones she could talk about “old times” with - the years of the Great War, and growing up during the Depression.

But my mother did admit that the constant barrage of phone calls was sometimes annoying. “Doesn’t that woman ever eat dinner!” she’d complain, of one friend who always called at 5:00 in the afternoon. “Why does she get up so darn early!” she’d say of another, who often called at 9:00 a.m. on the dot (my mom likes to sleep late).

About 10 years ago, the friends started to disappear, one by one. The losses piled up, but never came quickly. There were long, painful declines for each and every one of these ladies: dementia, cancer, Parkinson’s, strokes. More than one of them spent their last years in a nursing home, my mother’s idea of a fate worse than death. 

Then two months ago, the last of my mother’s remaining neighborhood friends attempted suicide. This lady was the only one left whom my mom ever saw in person. She would come over once or twice a week, call every day to “check in,” and always offer to pick up milk or juice for my mom when she went grocery shopping. But since this suicide attempt, she has remained at home, rarely leaving the house and never talking to anyone other than her family. And so one more friend has disappeared from my mothers circle.

I think about my group of wonderful friends, women I’ve met from so many different areas of life, but who all mean so much to me in unique and special ways. I think about them disappearing from the my life, one by one, until there are none left. 

What a lonesome land that would be.

What happens when you outlive everyone in your circle of contemporaries? Studies indicate that loneliness in elderly people can increase the potential for everything from dementia to high blood pressure, and is obviously a huge risk factor for depression. But is it possible to make new friends at age 88? I suppose so. If my mom were a little bit more independent, a little bit more mobile, a little bit less racked with arthritis pain, she might be persuaded to go to a senior center on occasion, or to church (although she never really liked church even when she was young). She’s a very private person, doesn’t care for group activities as such, and was never one to join clubs or organized groups. I certainly don’t see that changing now. Her world doesn’t expand any longer, but draws itself into a smaller circle every day

 Her cadre of friends has mostly disappeared due to attrition. It’s a natural process, but one that must be disheartening as well as depressing. Watching your friends and family succumb to the fates of old age must make you feel like a sitting duck. When will it be my turn? she must think. What will happen to me? 

So along with the loss of independence, the loss of mobility, the loss of days without pain, my mother now has lost the companionship of people in her own age group. “There’s nobody left for me to talk to,” she told me the other day, “except you.” 

So I feel the mantle of responsibility wrap just a bit tighter around my shoulders. She’s very careful not to “bother me,” and rarely calls me unless it’s to ask if I want to bring the “puppies” over for a visit. But I think about her a lot, sitting home alone most days with nothing except the television for company.  So I call at least once a day, visit at least every other day, trying to keep her in the land of the living - emotionally as well as physically. 

“I’ve really never minded being alone,” she reassures me. “I’ve always liked my own company just fine.” I believe her - we’re very much alike in that regard. Still, she must miss the companionship of people her own age, even if it’s only in shared conversations on the telephone. Who else can you talk about old times with? Who else "remembers when”?

The poet Jane Kenyon wrote a poem for her mother-in-law, who, at age 91, finally had to leave the farmhouse where she had lived for over 60 years, and move into a nursing home. In it, she uses the image of a horse, running in wide circles, the circles growing smaller and smaller. It’s a beautiful and poignant poem that always makes me cry because it seems so appropriate for my mother, who still talks about the days when she would ride her pony Billy to school or over the fields to her Grandmother Crawford’s house for lunch.

“Old age is a ceremony of losses,” writes poet Donald Hall (Kenyon’s husband), who recently published Essays After Eighty. “But when I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers."

My mother seems to recognize this truth too. “I can’t dwell on it too much,” she’ll say about the losses of her friends, the smallness of her circles. “I take it one day at a time and hope for the best.” 

So that’s what I do, too.

And try to keep her from being too lonesome.