Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hope I Don't Die Before I Get Old

My grandmother, who is 86 years old, recently moved into an assisted-living complex for the elderly.  Prior to this move, my only real exposure to what the older set are up to for fun these days was her hobbies and interests.  She likes to watch sitcoms and westerns on TV, to read old dime-store novels, to tend her plants and flowers, and to go out to eat with friends and family, to name a few.  Now that she lives in a building with about a dozen other people in her age bracket, I am getting the bigger picture, and I am not quite sure what to make of it.

Gram and me, circa the Nixon administration. Please note my excellent shoes.

Take Saturday evenings, for example.  The big thing on the activity menu set up by the people in charge is The Lawrence Welk Show, broadcast on public television in the common room at 5:00.  No one shows up.  At least not voluntarily.  If my math is correct, a lot of these people were young adults around the time that Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley & the Comets hit the scene.  I know that my own grandmother would rather be listening to Kenny Loggins or Elton John, given a choice.  She’s always been a little ahead of her peers when it comes to music and entertainment .  After all, this is a woman whose all-time favorite album is the soundtrack to Footloose.

Saturday dinner is served in the same room when Welk and his ilk are playing around 5:30, so the residents can either show up for pasta and polkas, or prepare something for themselves in their own apartments.  Since my grandmother and most of the others are pretty social animals, they suck it up and show up for the meal, doing their best to ignore the vapid grins and accordion music blaring from the television.  I’ve seen my grandmother and some of her friends grimace and shake their heads when something especially cheesy turns up on the Welk show as they are trying to enjoy their seafood bisque.  Something tells me Lawrence Welk and his grinning gang of singers and dancers are going to be phased entirely out of the program at senior centers over the next few years if this is an indication of a larger trend.  Further proof, to me at least, that there is indeed a God.

Of course there are lots of other activities offered at the apartment complex that get a better reception.  I’m told that biweekly bingo gets a good turnout, probably thanks to the extra-large chocolate bars that are given out as prizes.  It’s probably not a coincidence that the exercise classes offered are also well-attended.  The folks have to work off all that chocolate they win at bingo, I guess.  When community groups come in to perform plays, skits or musical numbers, almost everyone shows up.  My grandmother tells me that it is not always for the performances themselves that so many show up as much as it is to try to recognize the children, grandchildren, etc. of people they have known. Movies, religious meetings, arts & crafts and things like that also get a decent crowd each week.

What fascinates me most is that one of the most popular activities in this elderly housing complex playing video games in the common room.


They have a Nintendo Wii hooked up to the big-screen TV in the common room, and it is very popular.  They have set times when groups gather to play, but the console is available to the residents at any time.  And it seems to get plenty of use.

Now mind you, these seniors are not blowing up aliens or rescuing princesses from castles at the end of a level.  For the most part, they are playing virtual sports that would otherwise be too much for their bodies to handle at their age. Bowling seems to be the game of choice, though I’ve seen tennis and golf on the screen as I’ve passed by the common room too.

One cool thing about the Nintendo Wii is that you can create an avatar to represent you that looks like you or anyone you wish.  Of course there are pre-made ones you can use as well, and that’s what many of the seniors seems to go with.  Often, they seem to choose the most outrageous looking ones available when they play.  The other day I saw a woman who must be close to 90 years old bowling on the Wii, and I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that she had chosen an avatar that resembled a tattooed biker guy with a shaggy beard and leather clothing.  And this is not unusual.  I’m told it is common for them to choose to wackiest avatars they can find.

An enduring image for me is something I stumbled upon about two weeks ago.  I was stopping by to check on my grandmother after work and was passing by the common room.  On the other side of the window, playing video games together, was one of the more elderly residents of the complex along with a teenage boy, the son of one of the facility’s nurses who was about to finish her shift.  He was the whole picture: black hip-hop t-shirt, baggy shorts, sideways ballcap.  If you Googled “stereotypical teenage boy”, this kid’s picture would come up.  The lady, on the other hand, was wearing a flowered print dress and a light blue sweater, and you would probably have her picture come up if you Googled “stereotypical little old lady”.  On the screen, her avatar looked like Lamont from the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son, while the kid’s bore a strong resemblance to Tom Cruise’s LeStat character in Interview with the Vampire.  They were bowling on the Wii, and laughing loudly and often, along with several other residents sitting nearby watching as they waited for the evening meal to be served.  My grandmother was among them.

I realized two things at that moment: getting old isn’t all bad, and the next generation coming up isn’t either.

With Welk seemingly on the way out and video games on the way in with the older set, I’ve tried to fast-forward thirty-five or so years in my mind to picture what will be going on for fun when Generation X-ers like me are old enough to be living in such a place. Will we be gathering for re-broadcasts of the MTV Top 20 Video Countdown in the common room then?  Or will we be climbing into virtual reality machines to go hoverboarding before dinner?  I suspect a lot will depend on the influence of the baby boomer generation, which is on the verge of entering facilities such as these in large numbers.  God help us.  After all, they are the generation that made mood rings, pet rocks, and disco popular.

Oh, and there is something else I’ve realized more fully.  And that’s how lucky I am to have my grandmother still with me and in control of her facilities as I move into my mid-40s.

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