Once upon a time, I had no idea how many of these care facilities existed in and around Tucson. But when you think about it, it's a no-brainer: Like the billboards say, "active seniors" love it here, with all of the sun and the tennis and the golf. But time and tide, not to mention physics, wait for no man. It's only a matter of time before that tennis elbow just won't swing no mo', or that aching disk in the back that used to be called a "repetitive strain injury" becomes a Swiss cheese of porous bone shattering under the demands of one too many golf swings.
Life's just a mad dash toward the graveyard. That's what my Irish granny told me. I was 8 years old. What a horrible person she was, but that doesn't make what she said any less true.
But between the golf course and the grave are the care facilities. "Care facility" is code for "house," the mortgage of which is being paid off quickly by housing and caring for old people. Most of the caregivers in these places are relatives of the mortgage-holder, so they work for either eventual part-ownership of the house, or maybe just for food and board until they learn English, finish school or whatever. You can tell there's a care facility in your neighborhood by the amount of traffic going in and out: nurses, visitors, people like me, ambulance attendants, undertakers. They're like crack houses, only neater, and the people going out on stretchers generally lack gunshot wounds.
My father was in one of these facilities for a while. He'd become both incontinent and demented, which put him in total denial about the fact that while he was wandering around the house without any pants on, he was leaking like a worn-out garden hose. My mother sprayed deodorizer everywhere, day and night, alternately lamenting the fact that the product failed to perform as advertised and blaming the problem on the dog. But, really, the dog was only 8 pounds soaking wet, and if she was weeing in the house at all, it was in an honest attempt to cover up the excessive, continuous and horribly confusing markings of the old man. If she'd had her way, she would have put him outside and locked the doggie door.
So the other day, I walk into one of these facilities--only it is entertainment hour, and they want me to go away. Everyone's in the living room sitting in a circle. An old guy wearing a straw-boater is alternately strumming a ukulele and dancing with a cane, singing songs like "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." He can only remember the first verse, so he sings it over and over. Some of the residents sing along with him, mostly off-key, and the effort wears them out. The entertainer says, "I'll be through in five minutes. Can you wait?" The truth is, I could have waited, but there's no way this guy's going to be through in 5 minutes. He's old showbiz, former USO, and couldn't be more of a ham if he had "Hormel" stamped on his butt. I can spot the type a mile off.
"I'm sorry, but I've got other patients to see. You can just carry on; I can do it right here."
I kneel down in front of a lady who's slumped in a chair on the leading edge of the circle. The entertainer relaxes as he realizes I'm not that much of a distraction. I do my thing; the lady barely feels the stick. She's tells me she wasn't always like this, and that she's sorry. I'm not sure what for. She smells of urine, but they all do. Adult diapers don't work.
Straw-boater starts in again on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." He's not a bad tenor for his age, and when he gets to the end of what he remembers, I decide to do him a favor and take over. "Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue. And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true."
"Is that how it goes? I thought that was how it goes!" says my lady in the chair.
I pack up my gear. Straw-boater is happy to see the back of me; I upstaged him. "Two strokes and one heart attack," he says, ushering me out, shuttling his wicker cane from one hand to the other. "Bet you can't compete with that."
"You are right about that, sir. I can't."
The brass door knob feels cold in my hand. I can't turn it quickly enough.