Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My mother's 96th birthday. Happy Birthday Mom!

     The celebration of our birth day is an interesting custom and a joy to most of us. For my family, October is the month of birthdays. A long list of relatives including my younger son, my brother in law, my cousin, my first born grandson, and my daughter in law. My son and daughter in law also have an anniversary in this month. A little research shows that currently the most common birthday month is September. But October is close behind. Actually the most common days of birthdays in the US are October 5 and October 6. Of course we all count backwards 9 months. For September we come to a holiday season in the US which may account for this being the month of the most birthdays. But October is no doubt close behind because January is often the coldest month in our northern climate, and people are no doubt cozied up inside together.
     The beloved relative for me with the oldest birthday in this month, is my mother; this year she is celebrating her 96th birthday -- a nonagenarian. She still likes to celebrate. She decided to have a fellowship hour after church in her own honor. Her daughters helped her put together some cheese and crackers, grapes, and sweets to serve along with juices and of course the mandatory coffee machine supplied the java. This is a small church in a little town in northern Illinois, but I would guess that everyone in attendance came down to the fellowship hour. Her youngest daughter, the one who succeeded at piano, a retired music teacher and vocal musician, sat down at the piano and played a sweeping introduction to the Happy Birthday song, and we all sang to her. She was beaming. Among the many other photos taken, a "church family" photo was taken with Mom in the center, she is the oldest member now.
     It was a nice gathering! I enjoyed it because it gave me a chance to go back to the old church and see people that I had not seen for some time. Some of these people were young people in the church when I was going to summer Bible School, or when I was a member of the confirmands class. These people have all had an effect on us during our formative years. An upright church in a small town in the northern part of Illinois, the heartland of our country provides a wonderful influence for growth to the local children.
     I wanted to try to find out how common people of 96 years are. This would be a difficult number to come up with. I did find numbers for centenarians: there are currently a little less than 55,000 centenarians in the United States. 82% of them are women. Then I tried various calculations using the current US population and the estimated US population in 2018 when Mom would be 100, and the death rates now and in 2018 which are not that different. I came up with very odd numbers which probably do not apply to our population because the death rate among nonagenarians is probably significantly higher than the death rate in general (700/100,000 population). I can not find any numbers that would provide the chances of dying when you are in your 90s. Therefore, I am going to have to let these calculations go. Suffice it to say that I think nonagenarians, and nonagenarians who are approaching centenarians are fairly rare. My mother is a rare individual.

      In my research I came across this poem written in my old literature (as an internal medicine doctor) -- the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The Summer of Her 96th Year

Did you ask where I am?
I'm in a very comfortable place, a hotel.
No, I don't know where it is
but they are very nice to you here
you can do whatever you like, it's very nice.

What day is it you say? Oh, it's a summer day,
warm. I like it warm, it reminds me of my father,
he would smile when I sang.
It was so long ago, you know,
so many summers ago, you know,
so many summer days.

The year? I always had trouble with numbers.
I remember the year my brother was born,
I was seven and I made believe he was my baby.
I wish my mother was here. Are you here momma?
Are you my mother? Oh, I thought for a moment...

Did you say you are a doctor?
I've always admired the medical profession.
I knew many doctors years ago,
most of them were kind.
Does the light fade early in the summer?

No, I can't eat anything. I'm not hungry.
I'm afraid of this food.
I'm sorry, I can't hear, did you say
I hurt my hip and had an operation?
Well, for heaven's sake. I didn't know that.

Hospital? No, this is a hotel, it's warm here.
God bless you doctor,
I'm glad we met, but don't let me keep you,
you must have patients to take care of,
and I'm all right.

By John Mann Astrachan MD, New York

Published in Arch Intern Med -- Vol 143, Feb 1983.

     I as a doctor recognize this conversation as the doctor trying to assess this 96 year old woman's orientation to place and time. It is part of the assessment such a doctor would do during rounds after a patient awakes from anesthesia. I don't know what my mother's cognition would be like under these circumstances, in a hospital waking up from general anesthesia after a hip replacement from a fall. But I know what my mother's cognition is right now and it is extraordinary. Yes, she is almost blind with so called "wet" macular degeneration and she can't hear very well. I just recently took her at age 95 to get her first hearing aids. Her three daughters were complaining that we always got hoarse and sore throats after we had come to visit for a while, from the shouting and the repetitions of every thing we say. This is what made her decide to get a hearing aid. She was afraid that people would stop coming to see her.
     She still lives independently in her own little home. Granted being in a small town, she receives a lot of help, and checking up on from neighbors, friends, and other church members. There are numerous people that offer to drive her to her hair salon appointments and doctors appointments. The other day, a resident of the town called and asked her to come over for supper. She has an employee of a local Comfort Keepers office who comes now only about once a month. Previously she was coming once a week when Mom was having a lot of back pain due to spinal stenosis We three daughters visit when we can and call as often as we can..  But she has to occupy herself much of the day. She does. She gets up, makes her bed, gets dressed, gets herself something to eat, and plans what she is going to do that day -- maybe a little cleaning, or rake some leaves and put them out for collection, or sort through some accumulation of mail with her magnifying viewer, or make cookies for the church bake sale, or make one of her wonderful potato salads, or macaroni salads to eat for the next few days. She keeps tract of her medications and knows when she needs someone to take her to get refills. She keeps track of church events, the local historical society meetings, the church suppers and all the other fund raising events in this little town and tries to attend as many as she can get a ride to. I have taken her to some of these events, and she is a little social butterfly. She can't see well enough to know who has come over to speak with her, but that doesn't bother her. She tells them she can't see and who is she talking to? They tell her and she remembers them. She has some story to tell about where their lives have interconnected. During the travels of my husband and I, she keeps track of the itinerary and I know she keeps many of the members of the church informed about where we are and what we are seeing. She is steadfastly faithful about sending cards for every one's birthday and anniversary and any other occasion she can think of. My sister just gave her a large attractive folder with pockets for every month of the year, so that Mom can accumulate greeting cards and we and other caregivers can help her address them and keep them ready in a pocket to be mailed at the appropriate time. She always says she doesn't want gifts and we sort of honor that. My other sister brought her some practical things for the sink and the kitchen. I brought her some plants to decorate the church for her occasion, and I know she still loves flowers even though she can't see them very well. Every year she either tries to get some one to help her or she does it herself: plants tulip bulbs in the fall for a spring show, then digs them up when they are done flowering and replaces them with zinnia seed. Everyone comments about that strip of flower gardening along her driveway. She watches the evening news most nights and has an opinion about many of the current events. This give us something to discuss with her when we make our phone calls to her. She participates in the lives of her now 5 great grandchildren by hearing about them from us, by being asked to join in family get togethers when these young ones are going to be present and also by sending them cards, little gifts and coloring books or calendars that she has picked out either from her own collections or when we take her shopping.
     I don't know whether Mom will make it to 100. She says she doesn't think she will. But I do know that she is enjoying life as much as her limitations allow her to. And I know that she is indeed a rare nonagenarian and even a very rare human being. Happy Birthday, Mom.

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