Setting my son loose in Shady Oaks

1986: Open on a formal dining room, set for Thanksgiving. Several well-dressed elderly couples conduct polite, quiet conversation. Also the table sits young family; neighbors who were invited to join the feast.

In the stage whisper of a fascinated yet horrified 10-year-old: “Mom, why do all of the old people here have loose, flappy necks like turkeys?”

Zoom in on Very Embarrassed Mother. Through clenched teeth: “I thought I had raised a nice, polite girl who knows better than to ask such rude things.”


The shame and horror of that memory (me, the Stage Whisperer) stabbed my brain as my 10-year-old son and I prepared to enter the assisted care facility where my mother-in-law had just moved.

“Nana’s new house is pretty different from her old one,” I stuttered to my son. “There will be, um, roommates who can’t really, um, take care of themselves. So, just, you know…”

My grandparents were gone by the time I was 10; my son has three. Up until this month, his Nana was driving and living alone and “normal.” Now, well…

I flushed under my nervous memory of being my son’s age and not quite sure how to behave around old people. I’m certainly not sure how to prepare my son for seeing his Nana in this new situation.

I wanted to say, “Just don’t stare and avoid topics having to do with necks.” But I couldn’t.

As we were buzzed in, I could only hope that maybe it was naptime.

It isn’t that I am afraid of aging, per se. But I do have a phobia that my presence in some way points out that, “in case you weren’t aware, you are 86 and need to drink your cheeseburger.” The fact that most of the residents need help to do everything, the loss of freedom to even pee alone, just seems tragic. I don’t want to see myself that way. I don’t want my son to see me that way.

I had a boyfriend who would wax lyrical on the indignity of aging, in the way that only a 25-year-old can. That phrase always stuck to me, “the indignity of aging.” Like this natural process, to which there is no vaccination, was a shameful punishment. Despite success, money and technology, aging is the ultimate equalizer.

Of course, that concept is as lackluster to a child as frosting-free cupcakes.

Part of parenting is not allowing our paralyzing social shortcomings to affect our kids. So, I set my son loose in Shady Oaks.

I watched as he gently pushed Nana’s wheelchair through the halls. I echoed him as his normally shy voice clearly said “Hi” to passersby, who glowed to have a child in their midst. I burst with love when a trembling man took my son’s hand between his own paper-thin versions and said, “It is sure nice to meet a fine gentleman like yourself.”

During these hours, there was no age. There was joy and connection. There wasn’t loneliness, fear or cheeseburger smoothies. There were smiles, excitement and fondness. And there was a lesson: My child showed me that while youth may be fleeting, its lasting power is in making surprising and sweet moments last forever.

Maggie Knowles writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.

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