Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Mysterious Arranger - eccentricity and aging

At the far end of the hospital room, an 85-year-old waif paces in slow motion.

“Someone is making decisions about me everyday, and I'd like to know who it is," she says in an anxious voice, eyes lowered. She has outlived several sets of associates and two careers. She's a PhD, a shrink, now with only passers-by to analyze, an eccentric former opera singer, without an audience.

"Sit down here and talk to me," she says tapping on the chair seat with her cane. "You know I am a trained professional," she adds. I vaguely wonder if it’s true that those in the psychiatric profession undertake their calling to understand their own complexities.

I am visiting a relative who is ill, who happens to occupy the other bed in this hospital room, not here for an hour's advice in trade for $90.

"You know four people in that bed have died in this room while I have been here", she confides, pointing to the bed where my mother sleeps. Oh swell, now there is something else to worry about. Is this frail woman delusional or homicidal or has she been here that long?

Later she complains that the hospital has held her against her will for six weeks while her relatives try to close-up her house. They say she is a little odd, artistic, musical, academic - lives in piles of papers in creative disarray.

I think of my desk, which bears a striking resemblance to a landfill. I think of my collection of broken glass and mirror bits (each with an interesting shape) which someday might get glued together as oddball sculpture. I think of piles of things that often develop on the floor which seem to persist for months. I am 55 and still able to throw out unwelcome busybodies. But what about when I am 80?

There is a tyranny to the housekeeping expectations of relatives and social workers. The unconventional elderly who have lived full, intelligent lives as eccentrics, can be as easily harmed as helped by their efforts. The system itself has no understanding of lives dedicated to the practice of art, to nature, or to some other all-encompassing purpose, or lives that have for decades been happily, well, messy.

Life began in a messy puddle that might have been prematurely wiped up if some authority were running the show. The human race spread over the face of the globe entirely without indoor plumbing so who are these folks trying to kid...

The mysterious arranger is a case worker with a rule book. May the fates shield us from her gaze...

---- Mar Walker