Tales from the Couch

Seeing the patient from psychiatry’s perspective

The Arrangement

Wonder Woman at 101

Emma is one-hundred one years old.

 She’s never visited a psychiatrist and has few significant medical issues.

 I met her by pure happenstance while consulting at the Assisted Living section of a continuing care community where she was spending the afternoon as a volunteer serving tea and pastries to the residents, all of whom were her junior by at least a decade. Other residents sometimes called her Wonder Woman.

 Over the last seven years, we’ve talked frequently over a cup of coffee.

 Emma, simply put, is an amazing person.

 She lives independently in her own apartment; requires no assistance—no aides, no special apparatus or medical equipment—and is an active member of the community. Aside from failing vision, she’s in excellent health. She speeds around the complex—doesn’t use a cane or walker—is talkative, opinionated (pleasantly so), energetic, and spends a half-hour each day on a stationary bicycle. She formerly walked neighbors’ dogs, but because of poor vision, now only feeds them when the neighbors are away at the dogs’ dinnertimes. Gregarious, Emma not only volunteers in Assisted Living, but is active on the committee welcoming new residents to the complex. She knows everyone in the entire community by name and is viewed by staff and residents alike as a force of nature and a loveable “character.” 

 But Emma hasn’t had an easy life.

 Her father was verbally abusive to Emma and her mother, and abandoned them when Emma was ten years old.

 When Emma was only seventeen, her beloved mother died suddenly at age thirty-seven. 

 Emma became a registered nurse and married Charles at twenty-four. They had two daughters, one of whom died of breast cancer at age forty-seven, leaving two teen-age daughters. The couple helped raise their granddaughters so their son-in-law could continue to work in a job for which he travelled extensively.

 A few years later, Emma’s husband developed chronic leukemia and for many years, required intensive home care. She alone provided that care; and after Charles’ death, eventually moved to the continuing care community.

 One aspect of Emma’s personality—and well-known to the community’s professional staff—is she never complains about anything.

 I’ve been astounded at Emma’s capacity to adapt to circumstances, to persevere, and remain content with her life despite the tragedies and challenges that befell her.

 One day, while having coffee with her, I said, “It’s funny, Emma…you never complain.”  

“I have nothing to complain about,” she said.

 Like almost everyone who encounters someone of such advanced age, I was intrigued by her long life and good health.

 “Emma, is there some secret to your longevity?” I asked, wondering what possible formula she might provide (Drink whiskey; eat avocados; drink plenty of coffee, take things in stride, or any other precepts for a long life).

 Leaning back in her chair, she appeared pensive.

 Finally, she said, “To tell the truth, I’ve always thought my dear mother, who died at thirty-seven, arranged with God that I would get to have the years she didn’t get. That’s my only explanation for how long I’ve lived.”

 Mark Rubinstein

Author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier

 

 

 

 

Mark Rubinstein, M.D., is a former professor of psychiatry at Cornell. His most recent book is the novel Mad Dog House.

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