Baycrest is a long term care facility, which means that the folks who live there are not at all able to fend for themselves. Most of the residents are Jewish people; many are from Eastern Europe where the conditions when they were young, were awful – poverty, war, deprivation, war, pogroms, persecution, starvation, hand-to-mouth existence. I get that. But they have lived to be in their 80s and 90s, even though time has been cruel.
The first time I was there a few weeks ago, I took the wrong elevator and ended up in a hospital corridor type setting which was obviously an old folks’ residence. I stopped a passing staff person to ask how to get to the Brain….. She looked at me then rattled off a torrent of some Eastern European language that sounded like Polish. I took the elevator back downstairs and stopped at the snack bar for directions. Perhaps that was test number 1 – test subject cannot follow directions to get to the Brain …Centre. In my defence, I have to say that the place was like an inside city. Each building had a different name. Lining the long winding corridors were libraries, cafeterias, a marketplace and gift shops stuffed with tchotchkes, beauty salons and physiotherapist offices. The whole building is crammed with donated art – a genuine museum/art gallery – some really fine pieces, some murky big canvases that look like someone wiped their gardening boots on canvas then tossed on some Miracle Gro and shredded leaves, rooms full of Judaica. Lots of natural light. There’s an oasis of huge trees in an atrium and, not surprisingly, songbirds flitting around. That was the good part.
When I leave the building around 1 o’clock, the residents and their caregivers are out. The former are all so very, very old – limbs crooked or frozen into unnatural positions, the more mobile lurch along gripping their walkers, chins trembling with the effort. Most are propped up in wheelchairs with flannel blankets tucked high under their series of chins. As I stroll by, a few of the more sentient ones mutter to each other in Yiddish. They crane their necks and I can see in their eyes what I haven’t seen for decades –puzzlement with the unfamiliar – me. “Schwartze? Alien. What’s she doing here?” They frown, move their lips and chew their tongues.
Many more have their balding heads tipped against the back of their chairs, mouths perpetually opened to immobile ‘O’s. Their eyes stare up at the ceiling. Blue-veined hands curl into claws that sometimes jerk as if doing a spastic dance. Thick, swollen legs encased in sweatpants or velour droop to the floor or suddenly kick aside the covers. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the caregivers – tiny, youngish, animated Filipino woman and a few men with brown skin and raven’s wing hair. Their charges slump motionless beside them. Although they chat amongst themselves in Tagalog, they’re always glancing at their voiceless clients, reaching to tuck in a blanket or wipe a trail of drool from withered lips. Their laughter is lightly musical.
I rush faster by the near-to-dead receiving line, trying not to stare. I can’t help it – it’s awful. I want to weep. As I pass the last of the mute ancient sentinels of a past none of us can comprehend, I feel like doing cartwheels and screaming, “See, dammit to hell. I’m getting old but I’m not old. Look at me. I can move!”