LONGMEADOW – Now, this is how you do old age.
For a lot of people, moving into senior housing means leaving everything familiar, a prospect that is disorienting at best, and terrifying at worst.
But for Gert Joffe, Ann Albert, Sylvia Allen, Adele Barden, and Bea Rosenbloom, who all live at the Glenmeadow retirement community here, the transition has been quite smooth: They’ve only known each other a lifetime.
Ann, 87, and Adele, 86, have been friends since they were 12. They played tennis, swam in Springfield’s Five Mile Pond, saw each other every day at school. Bea, 87, met them when she moved to Springfield at 18. Sylvia, 86, got to know Ann when they were neighbors, pregnant at the same time. They bet on who would give birth first.
“I won,” Ann says with satisfaction.
“No you didn’t,” Sylvia firmly reminds her. “And you were very aggravated.”
Gert, 84, moved into Adele’s neighborhood during the 1950s and joined her regular, two-dollar-a-pop mah-jongg nights. They saved half the pot for day-trips to New York to see matinees and eat at Mama Leone’s.
They have commiserated over diapers freezing in winter, helped raise each other’s children, socialized in big groups with their husbands. They have offered meals and hugs and sympathetic ears as those husbands and – in a couple of heart-wrenching cases, children — died. Together, they have grown old, though sometimes they forget that.
Ann was the first to take an apartment at Glenmeadow. The others got to know it from visiting her. As they grew more frail, or their houses too big, they each moved into the handsome complex two hours from Boston.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” Sylvia says. “It took me a while to decide to move in, but there’s support.”
“We all feel very fortunate to be here,” Adele says.
Every evening, they sit in the exact same seats at the same big corner table in Glenmeadow’s blue-walled dining room. It’s like the cool kids’ table in high school, but the talk is of grandchildren, books, and that new Sigourney Weaver show. Sitting with them, it’s easy to see how they fit together – and to imagine them through the decades.
Bea and Ann are the wags of the group, self-deprecating ribbers who give each other, and everybody else, a hard time. Gert, the artist, is a little more reserved. Witty Sylvia laughs easily. Adele is the caretaker for the group. The only one who still drives, she ferries the others about, recently driving them all to a lunch for Ann’s birthday. Glenmeadow’s president, Tim Cotz, saw them arriving home, the women piling out of Adele’s vehicle as if from a clown car.
Everybody picks on Bea, who doesn’t mind. During a recent lunch, they tease her about her public bathroom phobia and her ketchup addiction (It appears watermelon is the only food it can’t improve). Between them, they remember almost everything – eventually. “It sometimes takes four of us to think of a movie star,” Gert says. Adele is chief memory-keeper, especially for Bea and Ann, who need more and more help.
“I worked, didn’t I?” Bea asks, when talk turns to careers.
“Some of the time,” Adele tells her.
“Some of the time,” Bea repeats.
At one point, Adele struggles to remember when she and Bea took a trip to California. “What do you think I brought you for,” Bea asks, with mock reproach.
It’s no coincidence that the five women, with their close, time-tested bonds, are among the happiest at Glenmeadow. “They find joy in anything,” says Cotz. “They all have physical challenges or cognitive ones, but there’s no whining.”
They know they’re lucky to have old friends close. As Gert puts it: “You don’t have to explain yourself any more.”
“I have to explain myself!” Bea protests.
“Old friends just accept you for what you are,” Gert goes on.
“Though sometimes it’s hard to accept Bea,” Ann says.
“It’s not Bea,” Gert says. “It’s her ketchup.”