There’s a gaggle of men, all over 90, who hang together at my retirement center. Often, I join them for coffee and the laughter can get pretty rowdy. Sometimes, though, I’ll find one of them dozing in an overstuffed chair in the lobby. Whichever one it is, I always hope he dreams of a sunny beach in the South of France. That would be my escape.
Yesterday, I sat down to a late lunch opposite one of the older men, a former chemist. He was staring out the window, an empty coffee cup in front of him. He was so still, I could imagine he might be asleep with his eyes open. “May I join you?” I asked. “Or, do you prefer to be alone?”
His face broke into a smile. “Oh company, please.”
We talked for a while about a shared past — soda fountains, comic books and banana splits – and when the rapport was strong enough, I asked him why he napped in the lounge in the afternoon rather than retreat to the quiet of his room. For a moment, he didn’t answer but allowed his eyes to drift toward the window, as if he might find the answer there. “I sleep in the lounge so I will have interesting dreams,” he said, at last.
His reply surprised me and forced me to consider what he meant. Even in dreams, did he prefer to be in the company of others? If so, what an elegant way to describe the human need for companionability.
As we grow old, we lose track of friends or are cursed to outlive them. The bonds holding us to our community grow as frail as our bones. Eyesight fades, as does hearing and eventually, we come to a place where sleeping in a chair in a public lounge eases our sense of isolation.
In the June edition of the AARP Bulletin, there is the story of a 79 year-old man who was charged with third-degree sexual abuse for making love to his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. She lives in a nursing home apart from him and when his step-family learned he sometimes crawled into bed with his spouse, they filed charges, complaining their mother was not mentally able to give her consent to intimacy. The complaint made its way to the court. At the trial’s conclusion, the defendant was acquitted. According to the judge, the husband was guilty of nothing more than loving his wife and seeking comfort in the arms of the woman to whom he’d pledged his life. (“Sex in the Nursing Home,” by Paula Spencer Scott, pg 10-13.)
We all need companionship. There’s no crime in that. What’s more, the judge’s ruling is backed by a higher authority. “What God has joined in holy matrimony, let no man put asunder.” (Mark 10-9)
(Orginally posted 6/11/15)