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Listener Essay - Sending Up Flares

  Elisabeth Grace, a retired clinical social worker, writer, birder, and gardener has lived in the United States since 1972 but has deep roots in England and Scotland.

Sending Up Flares

It began with my commissioning Pete, who has worked on various projects for me over the years, to build a handrail. For those who haven't been at my house in Old Chatham, NY, I should explain that when it was built sometime in the late 1950's, a small plateau was created, interrupting the steep slope which comprised the property, itself a 200 foot wide strip running uphill from Albany Turnpike to an abutting lot accessed from Pitts Road. The lie of the land creates a tiny stream with miniature waterfalls in rainy seasons, and a driveway which is a slippery challenge for a few weeks most winters. The house sits squarely on its foundation but the entrances, facing north and west, are a few steps up from lawn and parking area. An open deck fronts the north side of the house, and a covered porch the west side; the latter was an addition built about 25 years after we moved in.

Stone steps breach the retaining wall which, during the construction of the house, was designed to prevent the back yard from sliding downhill to join the front yard, and calling on Pete was my first concession to advancing years. After almost 40 years of climbing up or down those uneven steps, often with both hands full, I needed the support of a handrail. Now I can't imagine how I-- or my guests-- managed without it.

The overhead basement door was the next challenge. It was the original one, wooden with a row of small windows along the top. Over the years, successive coats of paint ultimately failed to conceal the fact that several panels were rotting out, and I decided to have it replaced with a metal door. I hired my neighbor, Mike, to install it, and the debate began. “You should have an automatic door opener,” said Mike. “I don't need one,” said I, having man-handled the old door for the aforesaid 40 years. “It won't cost that much more, and you'll love it,” said Mike, kind enough to refrain from pointing out that one day I might no longer be able to raise the door by hand. Eventually I capitulated, and Mike was right: I do love it, and still consider it the height of luxury to be able to sit in my car in rain or snow and watch my fine new door slowly rise at the touch of a button. When I came to the question on the door manufacturer's form which asked why I had bought that particular model, Mike and I laughed as he suggested I should write, “bullied by neighbor.”

I claim all the credit for my next adaptation to the needs of an older woman living alone and committed to aging in place. I remembered a friend, now gone, who had slipped trying to get out of the tub and could not exit her chilly bed until she was able, after some hours, to rouse someone in another part of the house she was visiting. I did not want to replicate her experience and decided that installation of a handrail in the shower stall would be a safeguard. Neighbor Mike to the rescue again. One consequence of that purchase has been the arrival in my mail every month of a catalog of so-called “independent living aids” intended to make life easier for seniors. Unfortunately its effect is to make me aware of all the things I might require in the future, such as talking watches and scales, waterproof chair- or bed-pads and foldable scooters, so I usually recycle the catalog before I read to the end and have time to get depressed.

My most recent purchase has been the most controversial, by which I mean that I had many conversations with myself about why I might concede the need for it. Years ago a friend, still partnered but aware of my single status, told me that I “should” buy some kind of wearable device in case an accident necessitated my calling out, in those well-worn words, “I've fallen and I can't get up.” I have indignantly resisted that suggestion for many years, pointing out that I have telephones in two rooms of my small house and that I have kind and caring neighbors. I gradually came to realize that just as I have lost my view of neighbors' houses to a screen of trees, so has my house become invisible to them, even were I able to semaphore distress.

An advertisement in a recent AARP Bulletin caught my eye. Not only would the product work, it promised, in any part of the United States, it also had a built-in GPS system so that if, for example, I were to get stuck in the bath-tub in a motel in Maine, or trip and break something while hiking in Columbia County, I could summon help with the push of a button. I was hooked and called to place an order, agreeing with Mary, my friendly Greatcall consultant on the other end of the phone, that with luck I would never need to use the device. (Oh-- I should also mention that the little thing operates when wet-- its name is Splash. If I remember, I can even wear it in the shower.)

Before I called Mary, I had spent time examining as objectively as possible how I had reached the monumental decision to make such a purchase, an apparent acknowledgment, to myself and others, that I am not invincible. I admitted that I have had rare moments of anxiety when one of my outdoor motion sensors lit up in the middle of the night (although I would quickly remember that a deer or a raccoon can break the beam.) I know that falls happen. I believed that my decision would make certain friends happy. In the end I asked myself: if I were in a small boat surrounded by rough water, with neither power nor sail, would I refuse to send up flares? I decided that I would not. So I selected a payment plan, gave my credit card number and waited only a few days until UPS deposited the small package next to the handsome, light-weight, automatic-opener-equipped door to my basement. Now I just have to remember to keep the thing charged. And to take it with me.

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