November 20, 2010

Martha Gets A Walker

When I walked in the door today, the first thing Martha said to me was, "Do you have my Medicare card?"

She doesn't call me by name, nor does she smile at me. But for ten months, she's been attending the activities I host once a month at this senior low-income housing complex. When we play Trivial Pursuit, she often knows all the answers, even the difficult ones like "Who was President during World War I?" Imogene and Lena guessed Herbert Hoover, and the forty-something, morbidly obese man on disability said, "Roosevelt."

"Woodrow Wilson," Martha mumbled under her breath, and I smiled and said, "That's correct, give yourself a point."

Martha reached out to the pile of multi-colored poker chips in the middle of the table. Her shaky hand took a red one.

Martha is an icon in this small river town. For at least a decade, she's wandered the brick streets most days. Her face shows the ruddy, weathered look of a homeless person, though she has a home in the low income housing building. Her clothes are often mis-matched, several sizes too big, and sometimes soiled. She doesn't bathe often.

She knows all the taxi drivers in this village, and will often call one of them near dawn to bring her a cup of coffee from the gas station. The staff at the housing complex begs her not to do this. When they come in at 8 a.m., they check on her and take her a hot cup. Usually she's already called one of the guys for a mug that strains her Social Security check budget.

For months I've been trying to help the staff at the housing complex arrange for home health care for Martha. She has been declining -- shuffling like a Parkinson's patient, sometimes falling against the hallway walls. She refuses to visit her doctor, and she has no family to encourage her. The staff is her family, and they cluck around her as if she is their baby chick.

Sometimes she disappears, but always turns up by the end of the day. This year is different, and the staff is worried more than usual about her going out in cold weather. Will she get hit by a car? Will she fall in the street? How can we help her?

She gets Meals on Wheels as do many of the residents at the center, so she has at least one healthy meal a day. Neighbors, many elderly and infirm, help her clean her tiny apartment and organize her papers. Elderly people seem to have so many important papers, and yet the ability to manage them diminishes with age.

Martha needed to present her Medicare card for the free flu shot in October. Martha thought I had her card because I registered her last month when the nurses came to give the shots. Though it is against the rules, I went with her when she directed me to her apartment to look for the card.

She motioned for me to sit down on the stiff, floral couch, while she got out her purse. She took out a tiny, zippered pouch with about 100 cards in it. She handed the stack to me, careful not to drop them with her shaking hand. Neither of us said a word.

The stack contained cards that were thirty yeas old, business cards of insurance men long dead, a Ponderosa steak card, and yes, her faded red, white, and blue Medicare card. She took her card to the nurses in the lobby, and got a shot in her left arm.

Today, on my last visit to this center, I came into the foyer to find Martha at her mailbox. "Do you have my Medicare card," she said, without saying "hello."

I reminded her she had put in back in the green vinyl zippered pouch on the coffee table in her apartment. She turned and walked away.

Then it hit me. Martha was using a walker, a brand new shiny push walker with gripper handles and big plastic pockets on the side. After she had her flu shot, she finally agreed for the nurses to come see her in her apartment, check her vital signs, have an aide help her with bathing, and learn how to use a walker.

As she shuffled away, I smiled knowing as another Martha would say, "It was a good thing."

This is based on a true stories; names and details have been changed for privacy reasons. © A.M. Abbott 2010