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As I walk through the automatic doors of the independent living community, I enter a pleasant foyer with a fireplace and comfortable couches and chairs. Many of the elderly residents chat and sip coffee. I spot Ann, the nosy one who loves to ask me personal questions, and keep a fast pace to avoid her. I continue down the hall to the East Wing, where my 86-year-old grandmother lives. I knock on her apartment door, and she lets me in. There is no time to talk - we need to get to the dining room!
Why do we need to be there 15 minutes early? So we can get a "good" table. The dining room has 30 round tables, each with a vase holding carnations. The room is quiet now because we're the first to arrive.
A voice comes from the activity room, "Hi, Ann! Oh, Gordon decided to come to dinner tonight?"
Zsa Zsa, my grandmother's best friend, is making her way into the dining room. Zsa Zsa was married four times and always dresses in her best clothes for dinner. For some reason, the name Jordan is not in her vocabulary, and she calls me Gordon. Zsa Zsa sits next to my grandmother and comments that she is glad that we got a "good" table. Two more people come to sit with us. My grandmother rolls her eyes and seems dissatisfied with our dinner companions. A man named Tom, 84, sits next to me and gives me a huge grin. The person to occupy the last seat is Angela, Tom's girlfriend. My grandmother and she dislike each other, a lot. They're always bickering about something, like who lost a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. As Angela sits, she shoots my grandma a dirty look, but musters a small smile for me.
In the distance I hear the clatter of canes and walkers.
"Where should I park my Cadillac, Rob?" a woman asks her husband. A Cadillac is what the residents call their walkers. This particular walker is the Cadillac of walkers, though, with two hand brakes, ball-bearing wheels, a cushioned seat and a basket to hold belongings!
Back at our table Tom asks my grandmother about her day. Angela is annoyed by the attention my grandmother is receiving and attempts to regain his attention, asking if he wants butter on his roll. Zsa Zsa and my grandmother are complaining that these are the same rolls they had for the last three nights.
When a resident wants to bring a guest to dinner, the kitchen staff has to know at least 24 hours in advance. My grandmother selected my whole meal so it would be a surprise. The residents also order their food ahead of time but what my grandmother receives for dinner is a surprise to her also.
The appetizer arrives - chicken wings that are burnt and greasy. I try to eat them to be polite. Zsa Zsa ordered a fruit salad and keeps announcing that chicken wings are so fattening she would never touch one. Angela seems agitated by that comment and takes a huge bite out of one. Zsa Zsa just nods her head in response to any question and doesn't seem aware of what is being said. She reaches up to her left ear and realizes she left her hearing aids in her room. Tom says that he hates his, and the table erupts into conversation about hearing aids.
Next is the entrée and I realize why ours is the good table - we are closest to the kitchen and get served first. I get a hamburger that looks like a brick. Tom gets a personal white pizza with shriveled cherry tomatoes. Angela gets a lemon chicken breast. Zsa Zsa gets a hot dog. They all seem fairly pleased. Last to be served is my grandmother. As the server puts down her plate, she opens her mouth to protest. She is sure she ordered a hot dog. In a flash, the server pulls out a sheet of paper with my grandmother's scratchings.
"Nope, you ordered the short rib, Ann."
My grandmother rolls her eyes and stares at her short rib. It has a yellowish tint and is very small. The table is silent, almost in reverence of my grandmother's dire ordering error. "Chattanooga Choo Choo" is playing softly in the background and Tom tries to break the silence by humming the song, very loudly. My grandmother is brooding over her rib and attempts to pull some meat off it. Without much success, she smacks it with her fork in disgust and yellow marinade splashes onto her white shirt. The table bursts out laughing, and the silence is broken. Zsa Zsa can't stop raving about how wonderful her hot dog is.
Tom has stopped eating his pizza by now and is trying to give it to me. I refuse it, and finally he gives up. Zsa Zsa reaches over to my grandmother's plate and cuts a lot of meat off the rib and a look of satisfaction emerges on her face.
Next, it's time for dessert. The server puts a small dish of sugar-free chocolate swirl ice cream in front of my grandmother. She looks up to object and insists she ordered vanilla with strawberries. Once again, the server takes out the order sheet and shows that she checked sugar-free chocolate swirl. When I get my vanilla with strawberries, I trade with her. She is pleased and starts to brag about what a wonderful granddaughter I am.
The plates are cleared and my grandmother's long-time friend, Bess, hobbles over. Angela asks how she has been feeling since her accident. She had fallen in her apartment and knocked her bottom teeth out. Zsa Zsa chimes in with a story about her son-in-law, who takes out his false teeth at family parties. Angela tells another story about when she was yelling at her son and her teeth flew out of her mouth in mid-sentence.
The dining room clears as quickly as it filled. The servers hastily remove the tablecloths and wipe down the tables. The walkers and canes are reclaimed and people head back to their rooms to catch "Millionaire" or "American Idol" before bed. Zsa Zsa announces her departure, Tom says good-bye and Angela mumbles an inaudible farewell.
We then get up and head back to my grandmother's apartment after an eventful (and enlightening) dinner. I realize that even though these individuals may have lost some teeth or auditory abilities, they haven't really lost their youth.