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Arena Stage show encourages handling elderly with tenderness [Commentary]

By Gwendolyn Glenn

11:14 PM EDT, October 9, 2013

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When I was very young, my brother Nelson— who's a year older than I am — and I would tell our older siblings that when they were 50 and in wheelchairs in rest homes, we'd still be young and vibrant. We saw them as over the hill. We even joked that an older sister who loved to sleep late only did so because she saw the hill approaching.

For some reason, we didn't think those thoughts about our Grandmother Eunice. She was a strong widow who, from her 60s until she passed at 102 years old, lived by herself and often traveled alone with no assistance needed from airline crews.

But not all of my relatives were so fortunate. Some had to give up their homes against their wishes and move in with their children. Several who were ill, lived their last years in assisted living centers or senior citizen homes.

I thought about aging and my ignorance about it as a child — 50 is the new 30 after all — when I saw a play at Arena Stage last month on growing old. "The Velocity of Autumn," starring Academy Award-winner Estelle Parsons, is a powerful play that's funny, serious, sentimental, and a realistic take on the ups and downs the elderly and their friends and family often go through if the aging process gets complicated.

Set in a Brooklyn brownstone, Parsons plays the role of 79-year-old Alexandra, an artist who's barricaded herself in the home she's lived in for 45 years. Her children don't think she should live alone anymore because of memory issues, so Alexandra stacks furniture against the door.

To make sure they don't break in, she also has bottles filled with a dangerous film-developing fluid with a rag stuffed in the top of each, lined along the walls of the elegant living room. Her plan is to set them on fire and blow up the entire block if they send the police, as two of her unseen children have threatened to do.

In steps her long-lost son, Chris, played by two-time Tony Award-winner Stephen Spinella of "Angels in America."

"I'm a cornered animal," Alexandra tells Chris in this two-character play. "I can take care of myself, and if I can't, God can."

Chris, also an artist, gets in the house by climbing a tree that's seen through the bay windows of the living room. He tries to get his mother to see the futility of trying to stay barricaded in the brownstone, but she tells him she likes being alone and has accepted being old.

"I can deal with it. … Old age is a big game of surprise. You never know how you feel until you get up. How can sleep make your feet hurt?" Alexandra asks wryly.

Throughout the play, the two engage in a deep, sometimes hurtful, sometimes comical, but always thought-provoking banter on Alexandra's plight, which is a universal story.

It has elements of the story of my two friends whose mother did not want to leave her home in South Carolina to move to Maryland when her memory began to lapse. I watched them go through the pain of eventually moving her into a nursing home near them when her care became too much.

A college friend moved her mother, a former college professor, in with her family when she developed dementia. The change was hard on her mother, who missed her home, and on my friend's family as her condition deteriorated. They lovingly continue to care for her.

I also know of other cases where an aged relative was put in a substandard nursing facility while the children went through her hard-earned retirement funds.

"I hope with seeing this play, we'll all become a bit more tender with our loved ones," said the play's director Molly Smith. "This story is about you, your moms, your aunts and cousins."

She's right. As for me, as I get over the hill, I'm claiming my Grandmother Eunice's genes of living healthy until 102 or older, while traveling the world and helping others, especially the elderly, enjoy life along the way.