A son says goodbye to his beloved 97-year-old mother—and contemplates the future possibilities of better care and living options for himself and other LGBTQ seniors.
by Jeffrey Wolf
Freddy was born two days after me, in the spring of 1953. Our backyards in the post-war suburb of Boston where we grew up were adjacent. As children we dug for fool’s gold in my driveway, climbed “the big rock” in his back yard and like everyone else, we stayed out and played until the streetlights came on.
So, it’s not a really a surprise that after a lifetime as neighbors, our mothers both ended up in the same senior living facility in Massachusetts, Orchard Cove (aka The OC).
As for me and Freddy, we both ended up in Los Angeles. One day over lunch at a sidewalk cafe in West Hollywood, we were talking about our moms back East. Freddy’s mother Rae is on the Alzheimer’s floor—or as they call it at The OC, “Enhanced Living”— while my mother Bea was still living independently in the unit she owned. (“With the alcove for a TV or a roll-a-way cot, it will be good for resale when it’s time,” my mother would brag.)
Our conversation led to my lamenting about what I’d do when it was time for me to be taken care of as I aged.
“Freddy, you have kids to wheel you around! And a wonderful wife to make sure you get a private room in the hospital and your meals come on time,” I kvetched. Being gay, childless, and a widower of the AIDS crisis, I may be a survivor—but I’m still quite mortal. So the question of where I’d spend the end of my own fourth quarter has been on my mind more and more lately.
I told Freddy about something I’d recently read in HuffPo Queer Voices—about how gays are being forced back into the closet in their old age. We read together on his tablet:
“The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that LGBT seniors face frequent harassment and compromised care in retirement and assisted-living communities.”
“Yikes!” he exclaimed.
“Yikes is right,” I said. “After what I’ve been through and fought for, the closet is not an option. Certainly not for me!”
We hugged goodbye and I hurried home, a sense of urgency driving me to dig deeper into my longer-term options.
I googled “gay senior living.”
Most of what popped up screamed “queer!” like “Rainbow Vision Ranch” (sounds more like a gay nudist colony in Palm Springs) and “Stonewall Gardens.” They might as well just say, “This place is for you, Blanche!” Well, I have never owned a rainbow anything. And as far as I’m concerned, Stonewall is a bar in Greenwich Village where something really important took place in 1969.
A few days later, Freddy forwarded the latest Orchard Cove newsletter to me, subject line: ‘From The OC!’ He had cut and pasted the following:
We have begun an important conversation on the topic of inclusivity to ensure that Orchard Cove is a community that is welcoming and supportive of LGBT seniors. The topic of providing housing and healthcare offerings to older LGBT adults has been highlighted as a significant need in our country, and one that has allowed for important conversations and shifts to take place.
To say I was surprised would be an understatement.
In my mind, Orchard Cove is an old school, traditional last stop for aged Jewish women who have a propensity not only to outlive their husbands, but seemingly to live forever. As my mother excitedly reported to me when she first moved in, “All the girls from the old neighborhood are here! Everyone knows me! After all these years!”
Not long after my lunch with my old friend, I woke to a 5:30 a.m. phone call: “You’d better catch a flight back east. As soon as possible.”
I arrived at Orchard Cove that very night to sit by my mother’s bedside. After 97 and half years, she was ready. She had been quite vocal about “no extreme measures” if her mind was gone. Which it was. While my father had died imagining he was back in the army, my mother was hallucinating a bridge tournament.
“I won,” she’d say. “There’s no one left to play with. I’ve no cards left. It’s over.”
Well, it was almost over. My mother was a strong woman, and her body wasn’t ready to let go. So, for three days I walked the halls of the OC whenever I needed a break. One of my favorite strolls was to go see Freddy’s mother on The Enhanced Living Floor. (You know things aren’t good when a nice walk is to the Alzheimer’s wing.)
I was walking back to my mother’s room after one such visit when I passed a woman, not much older than me, coming out of an apartment with a little dog.
I blurted out, “Walking your mother’s dog?”
“No,” she said with a twinkle, “We live here.”
“Really!” I exclaimed. “You look much too young.”
“Thanks. Nice of you to say. But really, it’s perfect for us here,” she said. “The food is fantastic. The fitness center and the pool are awesome. Plus, we know the neighborhood. Even though it’s only been a few months, we’re very happy here!”
I wished her well and walked back to hold my mother’s boney little hand, covered in paper-thin skin, as she mumbled about the bridge game. “It’s over…Why am I still here… There are no cards left to play…”
The next morning, on my way up too see Freddy’s mother, I saw my new friend Nancy standing with two other women in the corridor.
“How’s it going with mom?” Nancy asked.
“It’s almost over,” I said, letting out a long sigh. The three women looked down, sighing along with me.
“Let me introduce you,” Nancy exclaimed. “This is my partner Judith and our friend Lynne.” They both reached out a hand to shake mine. But I was in the midst of slapping the palm of my hand against my forehead. Hard. I reeled back.
“Oh no, you didn’t!” I shouted in amazement.
They got it and laughed. I told them about the newsletter I had just seen on the very subject of LGBT inclusion at Orchard Cove.
“Well, they’re talking the talk—and we’re here to walk the walk!” Judith said gleefully.
I was thrilled. “You’re the real pioneers! It’s so brave of you to move into a place with such archaic attitudes!” I gushed. “Good for you!”
“Thank you but it’s not that bad,” Nancy replied.
“True,” Judith interjected. “But, you have to admit, it did sting the time we walked by a coffee klatch and a group of ladies on a bench outside, and a lady with absolutely no filter asked her cronies in a really loud voice, “You think the dog is gay too?’
“On the other hand, quite a few women have invited us for dinner.” Nancy said, “And if they didn’t eat at 5:00, we would! Instead, we have lunch together, and boy do they have stories!”
I stood frozen in the hallway. Somewhere in the distance I was sure I could hear thousands of booming voices chanting the decades-old anthem of gay pride: “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!”
I felt a wave of optimism as I found myself looking forward to an ever-expanding range of options opening up to the very first generation, my generation, of out LGBTQ seniors.
But until I’m good and ready to make that decision, as Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home.”
Honor provides personalized home care for people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other age-related conditions—and support for family caregivers—in the San Francisco Bay Area, the greater Los Angeles area, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Need respite care, supplemental care, or have questions about how home care works? Give us a call at (877) 777-5116.