I am a 63-year-old woman, according to my birth certificate. I have multiple sclerosis, though thankfully not a severely debilitating case so far. I also have bipolar disorder, which has caused scary highs and destructive lows throughout my adulthood. In 2005, I was living by myself in Washington, DC, the city where I was born and had lived most of my life. I had recently retired on Social Security Disability. Over the course of that year, a profound depression settled over me; I gradually ceased functioning and communicating and was unable to care for myself. Due to the intervention of concerned and loving friends and family, especially my brother, I survived and “chose” to make a major change in my life. I moved to Raleigh, N.C., to be near my family. My brother and I had looked at independent living facilities in the area a few years earlier, with the thought that at some point the effects of my MS might make it impossible for me to live on my own. The future arrived sooner than I had anticipated, though it was bipolar disorder which crippled me, not MS.
Fortunately I was able to move into a facility we had both liked during that earlier exploration, Independence Village, a community that provided the three basic elements I needed: structure, three meals a day, and (most importantly) fellowship. It was a traumatic adjustment. I was the youngest of the approximately 150 residents, most in their 80s and 90s. I have a small, comfortable one-bedroom apartment with a partial kitchen, but I eat most of my meals in a large dining room with other residents. My big windows look out on a courtyard with lovely trees, including crepe myrtles, which bloom with bright pink flowers — a favorite in the South, and now a favorite of mine. Residents have planted flowers, and bird feeders attract a wide variety of beautiful, singing birds.
Now, I have lived here for 7 years, and I have grown to appreciate this community and the people in it. I have always been drawn to older people and their wisdom, a quality which is unfortunately no longer acknowledged or respected in our society. As I have become good friends with some of the women and men here, I have learned about their individual experiences and views of the Depression, World War II, growing up on a tobacco farms, jobs, civil rights, and the joys and sorrows of their lives. I am learning history from those who lived it.
We all have weaknesses here. Some of them are obvious. I have a cane; many have walkers (rolators); some are in wheelchairs, motorized in a few cases (the posted speed limit is 3 miles per hour!). Memory difficulties are common and, for a few people, Alzheimers is taking its toll. We accept each other and help each other, however, realizing that these various disabilities are the result of disease or old age. They do not define a person or make them less of a person. In this environment, I have learned to accept my own weaknesses and needs.
As in any community, one experiences deep friendships, loss, conflict, laughter, tears, boredom, agitation, peace, etc. Many people are unhappy when they first arrive (myself included), especially if they feel pressured by family to leave the home they had lived in most of their lives. But, over time, they begin to turn away from the past and see that a full, happy future might be possible here. Some residents are able to build a new life more easily than others. Some never can. It has taken me a long time. I needed to create a life here, as a member of this community, as well as a life in the outside world. Being new to Raleigh and to North Carolina, it took a lot of work to create friendships and participate in activities outside of Independence Village. Fortunately, I have a car. Most residents can no longer drive, which is a terrible blow to one’s independence in this society. Since most residents grew up and worked in the area, they do have friends and family who visit and take them out. But, there are always a few who are alone. Family has moved away and friends have died, but they can form new bonds. So really, for each of us here, life is what we make of it — just as it is for everyone else, regardless of age or living situation.
The following brief story illustrates a few of the gifts one finds living in a community like this …
I have a chronic problem with incontinence, a side effect of MS, which has resulted in a dilemma. I often wear pants with a belt. When I have to go to the bathroom suddenly and urgently, I have a limited amount of time to get to a bathroom — very limited. And, by the time I get there, I have to pull my belt through the loops, unfasten it, unbutton my trousers, pull down the zipper … it is too late. So I thought, OK, I just won’t wear a belt. But I have lost weight recently and, without a belt, my pants slide halfway down my butt; sometimes, they almost fall completely off.
So, I went to breakfast one morning and posed this question to my female and male table-mates: “Would you rather wet your pants or have them fall down?” Now this is a question I would not ask most people. I would feel too embarrassed and ashamed. But my friends here didn’t bat an eye. We all just laughed and laughed! They also came up with a solution — SUSPENDERS!