The Obama administration has declared that May is Older Americans Month.
At the same time the Obama administration is proposing cuts in Social Security and Medicare. There seems to be a disconnect.
Recently, I have been visiting my old friend and literary colleague, Anita Cornwell, 89, who has dementia and is in a nursing home.
She has been several stages of care at the same nursing home and is now in hospice. Anita is one of the lucky ones. She is in an institution that describes itself as a non-profit, faith-based continuing care retirement community with dementia and Alzheimer's Care. And she is fortunate to have a younger friend (in her late fifties) who sold her house in a gentrifying neighborhood for her and handled her finances.
Anita Cornwell is the author of the book Black Lesbian in White America published in 1983 by Naiad Press.
Anita is a pioneer. She came of age as a lesbian in the 1950s, and in her early writings -- published in The Ladder and The Negro Digest -- she was among the first to identify as a Black Lesbian in print. As she writes in Black Lesbian in White America, she was born in the Deep South at a time "when integration was a term seen only in the dictionary." Anita writes of herself as a young woman hanging out in the Village, where "She was looking for some of them, but they were home in the closet growing shoe trees." She writes of her involvement in the women's movement when she was often one of the oldest women in the room as well as being one of the few Black women: "We of the fifties (and the forties and on back to when) not only had to operate from the closet but, worse yet, most of us seemed to exist in a vacuum."
Anita entered the nursing home five years ago and remembers very little, if anything, about her former life. Her writings are on my website, so I hear from people who are interested in her work, but only very occasionally. But for the most part, Anita has been forgotten. She has had few visitors in the nursing home and the three Valentine's Day cards on the bulletin board at the wall at the foot of her bed were not signed. Someone on the nursing home staff had hung blank cards for her.
When I talked to some old friends who knew her, I got a standard response. One woman told me that she is busy with her own mother who has Alzheimer's and is in a home. Another woman told me that "I'm sure she doesn't remember me," to which I responded, "she doesn't remember anyone."
Denial is a strong defense mechanism (in this case, the subtext is that "I won't get old and sick") and I am not standing in judgment of anyone. As I was standing next to Anita's bed in the nursing home with my partner, I was reminded of how excruciating it is to be with someone who is near death. I was reminded of being with my mother, who I took care of and wrote about in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters and also of being with my aunt near the end of her life. Anita has been bedridden for some months, since she lost her memory of how to walk. More recently, she has lost her memory of how to swallow.
I had seen Anita two weeks earlier and she was declining fast. She had lost a substantial amount of weight and looked like a different person that the last time I had seen her. She was sleeping and her roommate told my partner and I that if we woke her up, she would talk to us for a little while. She did wake up, and when my partner was sitting closer to her bed, asked her if she could get her anything, she responded, "A couple of million." When asked what she would buy, Anita responded that, "For starters, I would buy a car." When we told her that we had known her for thirty years, Anita replied "that's a long time" and then she went back to sleep.
Anita is one of the estimated 3.8 million people who have dementia. And according to The New York Times, by 2040, there will be 9.1 million people with dementia and the cost of dementia care is expected to double.
President Obama is proposing cuts in Social Security and Medicare and is quoted in The Boston Globe as saying, "The rising cost of caring for an aging generation is the single biggest driver of our long-term deficits." The Globe reports that he is opposed by many in his own party.
Anita's friend, the one who is managing her affairs, mentioned to me that sometimes, she wonders what is going to happen to her and the rest of us who don't own homes in gentrified neighborhoods (so that we can sell them and go into nursing homes). Many caretakers in their 50s and 60s haven't even begun to think that far ahead. We are busy in the present doing what needs to be done. But it's taking a toll on us. It's time to start thinking about ourselves. In 2040 (and sooner), when the predictions about the rise in dementia cases and the need for dementia care come to fruition, we will be needing our Medicare and Social Security more than ever.
Read commentary on Anita Cornwell (formerly aired on the radio syndicate, "This Way Out") by clicking here.
You can learn more about Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters here.