Finding a Friend at 97

I watched my mother as she introduced herself around the table. She was trying valiantly to start a conversation with the little group of assisted living residents. Im Gina and this is my daughter Mary. And you are? The woman she was addressing looked dully ahead. Her mouth worked as if she were chewing gum, but there was no gum. Shes not responding, Mom said to me in a stage whisper. Maybe she cant hear you Mom, I said.

When we got back to her apartment after the so-called Happy Hour, my mother began her litany of complaints, but on this day, the focus was not so much on the food but on the people. I want to make friends, she said with a plaintive and disappointed tone, But nobody else seems to want to be bothered. I began again my own list of possible reasons why she thought people were deliberately thwarting her attempts to be friendly. They cant hear you. You cant hear them. They might be feeling bad today. They might be upset about something. Maybe they dont know how to hold up their end of a conversation or more accurately, theyve forgotten how. Oh I know, theres all kinds of maybe this and maybe that, she continued, but Id like to have a friend.

Its heartbreaking to watch your child at school as she tries to make friends with other kids, but she lacks the skill, or the other kids think somebody else is more fun to play with. Here it is, happening at the other end of the line, only in reverse.

Being the primary support for my almost 97-year-old mother, I struggled to come up with a solution to this problem. Her physical needs are being met, for the most part, but emotionally, now that the trauma of moving into assisted living has passed, she is facing the loneliness of not having friends to visit with. Even though I am there 3 to 4 times a week, a daughter is not the same as a friend. I am there to solve problems, to furnish personal supplies, to listen to complaints, to take care of her laundry, and yes, to visit as well. But a friend is someone to brag to about your grandchildren, to reminisce with about the depression, and to check up on when one or the other doesnt call or stop by. So, what, as her support system could I do about this? Arrange a play date? Get her signed up for Girl Scouts? Invite someone in for tea and cookies?

Then a suggestion from my friend Lynda came swimming into the foreground of my consciousness. What if I hired someone to spend some time with her, say, once a week or so. Putting the notion of a gigolo aside, I let the suggestion take shape, focus, and finally, as of today, action.

Today there was a holiday brunch party at the home for the families of the residents. I knew this would be an impossible situation for my mother to handle on her own, and I knew just as well that I couldnt be of any help myself. There would be tons of extra people milling about the lobby and dining area, noisy kids, confusion, and chaos. I pictured my mother toddling down to the dining room, being met with that wall of noise and confusion, and then heading right back to her room to have a peanut butter sandwich alone.. So I enlisted the help of a friend who had helped me take Mom shopping once before, and as we chatted over our brunch plates, the groundwork was laid. Once or twice a month, this friend will stop by for a visit with Mom. She can say she was in the neighborhood, and Mom will be thrilled to have company. It worked for Lyndas mother. I think it will work for mine.

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