Our neighbor, Fru (Mrs.) Østbakken, who is 94 years old, moved out of her apartment this past week and into an elderly residence/nursing home. She was told that it will be a short stay while she recovers from what seems to have been a small stroke, but her niece meant that it is unlikely that she will return to her apartment. We were getting ready for work the day she had her stroke (episode as she calls it). She felt her legs go numb and she could not get up and walk, and it lasted for about twenty minutes. In the meantime she had managed to summon help (us and well as her neighbors upstairs) by yelling as well as by pressing the little alarm button that older people often wear around their necks as a kind of necklace. It alerts a central station that this person needs help and an ambulance can be sent if the person needs one. In Fru Østbakken’s case, she did. But after all the blood and medical tests they performed on her, they could only tell her that her heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs were in good shape for her age, and they sent her home again. However, her condition seems to have deteriorated a lot since then (about three weeks ago) and she stopped going to the elderly center on Tuesdays and Thursdays and preferred to remain in bed the whole day. I would say that she became more fearful and depressed. We had been checking in on her for the past year or so, making sure she was ok, buying bananas (her favorite food of late) and other small groceries for her, and bringing her small portions of our supper meals to her when we knew it was something she would like. At those times she would often talk about how much she enjoyed her mother’s home cooking. The last time I stood in her kitchen I really listened to her as she told me about where she was born and grew up, and who her relatives were and where she fit into the family tree. I have noticed this sudden need to talk about their early lives and family in other older people who were close to me. It is a sense of urgency, I believe, because I think they get a premonition of the reality of their own mortality. I cannot explain it any other way, and it has had a marked effect on how I view my own life and mortality. It seems to be more important now than before to chronicle one’s life and family history so that our children and family know who we were and what we thought.
When I moved to Oslo, she was already 74 years old. She had retired at 70 after 50 years of working and had received some kind of tribute from the King of Norway for her long years of service. When she told me about this honor she was very proud. She was always very generous and kind to my stepdaughter through the years, giving her candy and small gifts. If she made bread or waffles she would share them with us. Up until she was around 85 years old, she would go to her small cottage in the mountains during the summer months, and live there alone with occasional visits from friends and family. She would take care of the grounds, haul up her own water from the outdoor well, and take care of herself very well. She sold the cottage when she was in her late 80s. Her husband died in 1993; they never had children and she carried on without him. She has been an independent soul for as long as I’ve known her. We have watched her go through a bout with colon cancer which she seems to have beaten, as well as arthritis in her knees which left her legs twisted and bent. It must have been very painful for her to walk but she kept on going, walking up and down the three flights of stairs when she needed or wanted to go out. We live on the third floor of our co-op building and there is no elevator. She enjoyed sitting outdoors in all kinds of weather with the other elderly ladies who lived in our neighborhood (they are gone now), some of whom are in nursing homes themselves, some of whom have passed on.
In the past year, when I have stopped in to see her, I have sometimes felt very mentally exhausted due to work problems. Sometimes I would just tell her that I felt like giving up, and she said to me that she had often felt that way when she was younger, but that it was just to go on and not give up. She has lived that way her whole life. It helped to hear that, as it often helped to talk to my mother and father when they were alive. Older people have wisdom to share with younger people that is unfortunately not valued as much these days as it was earlier, or perhaps that is my impression and not necessarily the truth. However, it seems to me that society is mostly concerned with youth and tends to ignore aging and death. I remember my mother, when she was in her late 70s, commenting upon how invisible she often felt to the world around her. Luckily, she had her family who cared for her, but it struck me how alone and lonely many older people, who do not have any family, must feel. We will eventually visit Fru Østbakken in her new home, but we will wait a few weeks to see what actually does happen. It would not seem right to return her to her apartment without full-time help, and that she cannot afford. She has nieces and nephews but they do not have the possibility to take her in and that is not done so very often here. Older people move into state-funded old-age homes, nursing homes and/or assisted living facilities and that is that. I hope Fru Østbakken will be happy there—somehow I think she will, after she adjusts to this major new change in her life. We did not know ahead of time that she was leaving her apartment on the day she left (her niece told us later that she would have called to let us know about it), but we happened to be home and we went in and I said to her that I had thought of asking her if she needed me to buy bananas for her that day. Her answer was that she was sure that she would be getting bananas that evening at the home. She could see herself there already and I suppose that is a good thing—to be able to visualize yourself in the new situation. It is another lesson in how to gracefully let go and adjust to the inevitable changes that life gives us.