Mother’s Day in isolation

My mother, alive and well at 96, has a phone in her room. But I can’t talk with her this Mother’s Day.

Between her near-blindness and some dementia, the chances of her answering that phone and carrying on a conversation if I called are only slightly less infinitesimal than the likelihood that she could place a call to me unassisted.

Mom enjoying the sounds and smells of Edwards Gardens in Don Mills, within bicycling distance from my childhood home, a few years ago.

In the normal past, once a week my sister would call me, hand that phone over to mom and we would have a good chat. 

Almost always mom rose to the occasion, seemingly enjoying phone calls more than our face-to-face interactions when I visited in person every couple of months or so.

(Can’t blame that on my face. Did I mention she’s pretty well blind?)

Her long-term-care home is locked down now, to both my sister and me. So phone calls are out as well, though the staff connect mom with my sister about once a week that way.

I’d have to say not being able to talk with my mom is the hardest blow COVID has inflicted on me. I miss her. 

Given how dementia disposes of a person’s concept of time, it’s quite possible she doesn’t miss me at all. If pressed, she might think she talked or visited with me just yesterday. I hope that’s the case.

And given the many social media tributes I have seen today by people whose mothers who are not longer with us, I should and do consider my mother deprivation to be akin to whining.

She is alive. There is no COVID in her home, apparently a well-run if a bit run-down not-for-profit with a staff that has always struck me as being as wonderfully kind, caring and loving as they underpaid. 

I’m delighted to trade the emotional costs of not talking to my mom for the fact that she has not suffered the fate of too many of her cohort, old people sacrificed on the altars of shareholder value and government “efficiency.”

Unless something unlikely and awful happens, in 26 days mom will turn 97. Her birthday will be another occasion for me to miss my mom. For her, probably it will sail by her unnoticed; they celebrate birthdays once a month in the residence, one day all those with a birthday in that month. COVID might have put an end to that too.

Not being able to talk to her today, or on June 5, prompts me to remember the conversations we have had over the past few years that she has been in that facility.

She likes that I tease and joke with her; mom has always had a great appreciation for humour, probably a survival mechanism for dealing with her late husband and me.

She chastises me if my joking goes over the line, as inevitably it does.

She concedes that she is well-cared-for — the food is great there, and at her stage in life that satisfies a good chunk of her pyramid of needs — that she is in pretty good health and that she’s having a good time.

She has no news. But that would be true if Doug Ford had been assassinated just outside her room.

She wonders when I’m coming to visit.

She thanks me for calling, even though it’s her who called me, through the agency of my sister.

Very satisfying for me. Probably very satisfying, for a briefer moment, for my mom. Hopefully a longer-term boost to her endorphins.

In these COVID days people like to recite how many troubling global events our elders lived through.

In my my mom’s case, that would be prohibition, the depression, World War Two, the Korean War, the Cold War and all the other ups and downs in the intervening 65 years. And now COVID. I hope and sort of expect she’ll live through that.

But world history is far from the sum of mom’s experience. She also lived through some remarkable events in her personal life, challenges she overcame or at least endured, things that I won’t recount out of respect for her privacy.

I was a challenge. One of the dominant images I retain from my teenaged years is my mom sitting at the kitchen table, smoking, waiting for me to sneak in quietly well after my curfew. We’d share a cigarette and then she could go to bed.

Though mom quit smoking about half a century ago, I think the worrying took a lot longer to taper off.

I was one of those kids — heck, adults —  who could take years off a mother’s life. Thankfully, I didn’t. Or if I did, my mom has one hell of a life expectancy.

Happy Mother’s Day to my mom. And to all those moms who are incommunicado, whether or not they have a full recognition of their plight.

Today I’m the one smoking at the kitchen table.

COVID a pressure-cooker for retirees

COVID Chronicles. This column appeared in The Sault Star April 25.

COVID isolation has been really hard on retired people.

I don’t mean the appalling death rate in long-term care facilities. That’s the topic of a serious column. Let’s try for something a little lighter here.

I’m referring to younger older folks, those prone to taking small naps but probably still a fair remove from the big, eternal sleep.

People who have not yet retired seem to imagine the COVID lifestyle is a lot like retirement.

Don’t let the snoring fool you:
Retirees are really very busy

Some have told me, a relatively recent retiree clinging to the facade of self-employment, that I should be accustomed to not doing very much.

Sticking to our own houses for the most part and trying to come up with stuff to relieve the crushing boredom: isn’t that what retirement’s all about? 

In a word (because the two words that spring to mind are vulgar), no.

Sure, retired people might get a little less done in a day than working folk (though I suspect they don’t waste any more of their nine-to-five on social media), but they still accomplish meaningful tasks.

The difference is that they do things on their own schedule, if they have a schedule at all, not on the timeline of an employer, customers or clients.

They shuffle to the beat of their own drum.

Right now, for example, I’m working on my income tax return. Even if I was hiking in the bush or reading a book or snoring I’d be working on my taxes. Sometime today I’ll actually get to taxes. Or maybe tomorrow. 

That’s how working works when you’re retired.

COVID confinement is putting retirement under pressure.

We’re all encouraged, if not expected, to make the best use of this sudden surplus of free time and emerge from COVID a much better person. Retirement does not give you a free pass from this societal imperative. 

I’d say many retirees are ahead of that curve — the self-improvement curve, not the COVID curve. We’re not all snoozing on the couch.

Some seniors already were learning a new language. It’s supposed to help them remember things. Remind me later and I’ll look for that list of things a new language will help you remember.

Some retirees develop new hobbies. Some fix up their homes. Some just do more jigsaw puzzles, listen to more music, play more sports or games, catch up on a Netflix series, re-read books by their favourite authors or see their favourite people more often.

Because of COVID, a lot of younger people are following these fine examples. In effect, they’re rehearsing for retirement.

But there’s a difference. 

For younger people, COVID retirement likely will end with them going back to work. 

Older folks know that ultimately they’ll be leaving retirement feet first. But they like to think they have a lot more time to strike things off their to-do list than the piddling few months (or maybe year-and-a-half) of the COVID contagion.

Lofty achievements are great, but why rush things? 

COVID has deprived retirees of some of those delightful activities that we use as intervals in our symphonies of self-improvement. 

Such as sitting in a coffee shop, restaurant or bar with cronies and arguing over the name of a Grade 3 teacher.

Or going to the supermarket every day for an item or two. And driving 10 kilometres under the limit in the passing lane on the way there.

And COVID is making it harder to get our retirement chores done. More pressure.

For example, I plan to put siding on my bunkie.

Normally I’d start by measuring things up. Then I’d measure things again, because I’d lose the paper with the measurements.

I’d put the new paper in my truck, where I’d discover that first paper with the measurements on it.

Then, when I felt like it, I’d go to the lumber store, show the order desk one of those pages of measurements, we’d figure out what I needed, I’d drive into the yard and they’d load it on the trailer.

Then I’d pick away at the siding job an hour or two at a time because a) my body can only take so much and b) what’s the big hurry?

In the COVID era I have to make an appointment to pick up probably not quite enough materials. And when I get them I’ll have to bust my butt on the job. Because we wouldn’t want to waste a second of that precious COVID time, would we?

The ultimate pressure on retirees is the fear hanging over our heads that we might have contracted the virus. That’s because one of the main COVID symptoms is “unexplained fatigue.”

If unexplained fatigue isn’t a cornerstone of retirement, I don’t know what is. 

And if I ever did know, I’ve forgotten.

Tips to help you think you’re spring cleaning

COVID Chronicles. This is the fourth in a whole pandemic of columns written for The Sault Star to provide comic relief during our health crisis. This one was published April 7.

COVID-19 sure has changed the way we do spring cleaning. 

At least, that’s been my experience.

For one thing, I’m actually doing spring cleaning this year. 

Normally when a warm, sunny day tells me spring has begun to sprung, more-important things intervene, such as taking a long hike or drinking beer with friends on a patio.

But in the COVID era, long hikes already are as much a part of my daily routine as sniffing my clothes to see if they’ll do for one more day. And outdoors is no longer a pleasant choice but the only place I can have a drink with friends: no novelty there.

I’ve taken to calling them Les Moutons. But even using a romance language can’t hide that the Dust Bunny came to my house this Easter.

Why even bother with spring cleaning if no one is entering your house, you might ask? Indeed, I considered just leaving the snow shovels outside my doorways and, when physical distancing finally ends, inviting guests to shovel their way in.

But since we’re being advised to acquire new skills while confined to our homes, spring cleaning it is.

Some of you finished your spring cleaning a few weeks ago. You bought dozens of bottles of sanitizer, stripped the supermarket shelves of toilet paper, wiped every surface in your house, including household pets, multiple times and then realized you had inadvertently done your spring cleaning while you were being so ridiculous.

All that remains is to dispose of a dozen garbage bags full of damp TP and several recycling containers full empty bottles.

Most of us are just getting started. So I thought I’d share some helpful hints I’ve picked up so far. If Trump can govern a country while knowing diddly squat about anything and ignoring experts, why can’t I dispense advice on spring cleaning?

The first thing you should clean is yourself.

Your sense of smell is an important diagnostic tool when spring cleaning. If too many bad smells emanate from within your social distancing distance, you might overlook some dangerously cruddy household targets.

I started by shaving. I had been letting my facial hair grow (all of my hair, if truth be told) with the idea that if my face looked so ugly that even I didn’t want to touch it that might reduce my changes of contracting COVID-19.

But I had forgotten that a new beard itches. It’s next to impossible to follow the don’t-touch-your-face rule with an itchy beard.

My second piece of advice is to make a really, really long to-do list.

That doesn’t mean you want to accomplish more spring cleaning than in your wildest dreams. The idea is to do the same total work but in much, much smaller segments.

Break every job down into tiny bits. That way you can check off or stroke out at least one item a day while barely breaking a sweat, then reward yourself in an appropriate manner. (Be sure “Stock up on booze” is on your list early and often.)

You can congratulate yourself for a job, well, done.

“Wash all the table knives” or “throw out orphan socks” are good examples of achievable chores.

In past years my to-do list would include something like “Spring clean the house.”

Half a year later “Spring clean the house” would glare at me accusingly when I stumble across my to-do list, like a “Become a better person” resolution made by a 10-year-old confined to his room for using electric hedge-clippers to shave the family dog.

This year I have to-do listings for each room of my house. When those rooms are larger than 30 square feet I break the work down into even smaller chunks.

For example, I have a large sunroom on the front of my house with a wall of windows, the type of room people ooh and aah over until I hand them a bottle of window cleaner and a roll of paper towels.

This morning I cleaned two sliding glass doors in the room, gave myself a hearty high-five and will administer a suitable reward after just a few more paragraphs.

Yesterday I cleaned all of the lower bank of windows in that room. Yesss. Reward.

The day before that I mounted a stepladder and cleaned all of the higher bank of windows in that room. Ta Da. Sip sip.

Each day at least one item checked off the list. Each day a reward or two. Don’t say experimenting with lab rats in my animal psych class didn’t teach me anything.

As you might suspect, “Come up with an ending for this column” is an item on today’s to-do list.

Done.