At 80, Charles W. Harper, a thin diabetic, is still a handsome man. His slow, hoarse voice and faulty hearing make him seem less alert than than he is. Recent strokes and heart attacks have robbed the strength from his legs; falls have become commonplace. His wife Jeannette, a small woman, supports his movement around their Northwest apartment. It's not easy, she admits, raising an arthritic hand to soothe the soreness in her shoulder.
Charles, her husband of 54 years, is now homebound, forcing the couple to move to a new apartment building -- with an elevator. "It was too hard to get him up and down the steps -- it (their old apartment) was on the second floor . . . That's one of the reasons I left," explains Jeannette Harper. Now, "I only go out when I can get someone to come stay with him."
Luckily, she says, she's had no serious illnesses. "I'm right healthy; one of us has to try and stay well," 80-year-old Jeannette Harper tells a reporter. "There's just us two," she says, reaching over to pat her frail husband's knee.
When asked if she ever thinks about either of them going to a nursing home, she looks indignant at the inquiry, then hurt. She closes her eyes for a second, takes a deep breath and purses her lips. "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," she says curtly.The watery gray rims around her dark eyes widen.
But her husband speaks up. "Frankly, no," he says; he'd have no one to look after him if his wife died, and that worries him.He supposes friends from his old neighborhood or his church would step in to care for him. Later, when he struggles to stand to say goodbye to his vistors, it is obvious that he would need much more than a friendly neighbor to look in on him occasionally.
Neither of the retired federal employes will use the words, "nursing home."
"We just don't think about that," Mrs. Harper repeats with defiance. Fear is in the room.
It often preoccupies the elderly. Fear of being mugged; fear of being lonely. Perhaps the most distressing and repressed thoughts are of becoming ill and losing one's independence.
Many senior citizens try to avoid thinking about what they would do if robbed of health or home.
Elerly people often deny those thoughts, says Yvonne Gilder-Gary, service director at the new D.C. Home for Aging Services. "It's too threatening. . . . It's like a cancer operation; they put off thinking about it."
They fear losing friends, familiar life styles and submitting to the rules and regulations of institutional living. "They see the nursing home as the end. Many die when they move; the shock of changing environments is too much for them."
"It took me three years to get my group to work through those feelings," she said. Gilder-Gray often runs workshops for nursing home residents in which they learn to air their feelings about the inevitable -- growing old -- and the dreadful -- living in an institution.
Some, like Mary Cryms, take aging in stride. She is a wisp of a woman, although anything but frail. She's the self-proclaimed "bouncer" -- just in case anyone gets out of line -- at the Barney Senior Center, a meeting place on Columbia Road in Adams-Morgan. She comes to the center every day and admittedly talks her friends to death. In the evening she goes home alone, to her house and dog on Georgia Avenue.
"On my birthday I had 15 people at my house," the former domestic proudly tells a vistor. "I cooked and put on my white uniform and served. I was 70 last week, and I got stewed!" She throws her black, wigged head back and cackles with delight, flashing the wonderful teeth she purchased not long ago.
Her, disabled, ever? "I definitely don't worry about that," she says, pausing, then adding, "If I got too sick to take care of myself, I could sell my house and live in a apartment. I always said I wanted to go to the Baptist Home -- if I had to. . . " Another pause, then, "I could always fall back on those children I raised." Not her own, she explains -- she never had children -- but those of her employers.
Like Cryms, most senior citizens treasure their independence and hold on to it tenaciously. Having to end up living with their chidren is a condition they particularly resist, fearing they will become a burden.
Some are fortunate to find group homes like the Episcopal Church's modern Friendship Terrace in the suburban-like Tenley Circle area. Here 210 residents, most on fixed incomes, live in their own apartments, mostly efficiencies thoughtfully equipped with emergency call buzzers and handrails above the bathtub.
All the residents must be able to take care of themselves, but the advantage of the communal senior citizens' building is that they are not completely alone, and there is always someone to call if a problem arises.
To ensure that residents don't become recluses, everyone is expected in the main dining room for dinner. Should anyone not show, someone checks his or her apartment. For some, the meal is the social highlight of their day. For most, this home will be their last; they will either die here, or in hospitals or nursing homes.
"It's quiet and peaceful and secure here," says Ruby Ballard, a retired nurse, looking out into the building's greening and sunny back yard. The mandatory dinner "is a real blessing," she says. "They've found people who've passed away or fallen."
Nearly all Friendship's residents are widowed women suffering the physical betrayals of old age. "Arthur is awful," giggles 88-year-old Marie Barnes, peering over her chicken sandwich through thick, smudged bifocals. Arthur is a nickname for arthritis, a well-known resident in the building.
But much more feared than Arthur is severe disorientation and falls that crack brittle hips. Such an accident often sends the victim to the hospital and, finally, into a nursing home.
Incapacitation and the halting road that leads to a nursing home is a real fear here, says Ballard. "Some of the most depressed people here are the ones who know they won't be able to stay much longer."
"There's a few who're afraid that if they go to the hospital, that'll be the end of them," says Jean Peek, Friendship's dietician. A few of the residents have refused to call the building after their doctors have admitted them to the hospital. They are afraid they won't be allowed to come back, she said. Some do return after being hospitalized, however, much to the relief of fellow residents.
As Pat perna, assistant to the administrator of Friendship, sees it, the high cost of nursing-home care is what the elderly most fear.Meals and rent cost about $300 a month in the building. Less personalized institutional settings average $1,500 monthly.
Some of the people who are old and alone in this city just assume they'll care for themselves until the end. And many will.
"I don't worry about getting sick, or what's in the future," says a 78-year-old Northwest man who asked to be called "Samuel Jones." He's a dashing gentleman in dusty navy blue trousers, a beige vest and a tattered jacket of unidentifiable color, perhaps army green many years ago. He is partially bald, but the rest of his head and face are adorned with thick, curly white hair. He looks rather like a small, black Santa Claus, minus the belly.
A former cab driver, he now lives alone in a boarding housing "in the ghetto." He has been robbed and beaten; something unavoidable in this city, he feels, so he limits his travels around his neighborhood to the daylight hours. His bowed legs ache, he says, but he teeters along New York Avenue daily to lunch at a senior center and catches the bus to George Washington Hospital for his eye appointments.
He reckons he can take care of himself if he takes his medicine and avoids sweets, which diabetics like him must shun. "I'm too sweet now," he chuckles, chewing on what's left of his lunch -- "tough roast beef," he snorts.
He dabs at his yellowed mustache with a rumpled napkin and decides he's ready for a cigar. "I started smoking when I was 10 years old," he says, "and I have good lungs as far as I know." He looks away. "I used to sleep in the ships I worked on (in Newport News, Va.). It's beautiful looking out over the water at night. . ." He is a man looking the end of life dead in the eye, accepting and remembering.