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Jakeís grandmother smiling

Grandmother: A Story of Aging, Decline and Love {format} 8:16 Jake Warga

The life and decline of the producerís grandmother.

Broadcast: Oct 6 2005 on NPR All Things Considered Subjects: Senior, Family, Health

Profile: Grandmother

October 6, 2005 from All Things Considered

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

We're going to end this hour with a story about aging and decline, what it does to the elderly and what it does to those close to them. We're going to meet a woman in her 90s with Alzheimer's and her grandson, independent radio producer Jake Warga.

Ms. ALMA KELSEY: Is it on?

Mr. JAKE WARGA: Now it is.

This is my grandma, Alma Kelsey(ph).

Ms. KELSEY: OK. You want me to talk, huh?

Mr. WARGA: Yes.

Ms. KELSEY: I'll be glad when I can understand what he says about these darn machines. I don't hear anything. I can't be 89 years old and not do it.

Mr. WARGA: I wanted to get a record of my grandma's stories before it was too late, and being a radio producer I just decided to record her.

Ms. KELSEY: Can't remember what I should talk about. I've had a wonderful life. I have had so many wonderful things happen. I don't like this bit--I want to talk to somebody, not to a machine.

(Soundbite of "Clair de Lune")

Mr. WARGA: This is her playing "Clair de Lune" on the grand piano in the living room at Leisure Village(ph). I wanted to record stories from her past, like when she visited Chicago as a kid.

Ms. KELSEY: We went to a speakeasy. They showed me how you go up to the door, you know, and you knock and it's in an alley, and they let us in, but then they said to me, `Don't give her anything to drink while she's in here,' but I was just scared to death. But it was fun.

Mr. WARGA: She told me the speakeasy story in 1999 before she started to mix my name up, before she started losing her keys twice an hour and leaving the stove on. She's now 95 years old. This is the latest recording I have of her.

Ms. KELSEY: I ...(unintelligible) right there even if you're (unintelligible) get fix her up.

Mr. WARGA: Grandma once explained to me that there's a burden to being old--not growing old but being old. She's outlived her friends, all nine of her siblings, buried two husbands and one son.

Ms. KELSEY: That's a heck of living so old, being the last one, because there's no one, you know, to be with because I don't still want to depend on anybody, have anybody to take care of me or anything. So I don't even think about being alone or what it's like to be this age. I just resent the fact that I can't get out and do the things I used to do.

Mr. WARGA: When her son, my father, died of cancer 10 years ago, time stopped for me and Grandma. We eventually emerged from our fog of grief, but she came out of it with Alzheimer's. When time started again, for her it ran backwards.

Ms. KELSEY: What is that you pinned on me? Three little pigs. I don't remember that one. Oh, gosh, I'm sorry.

Mr. WARGA: That's OK.

Ms. KELSEY: You didn't know you had a moron for a mother. Anyway I'm pooped.

Mr. WARGA: A grandmother?

Ms. KELSEY: A grandmother, yeah. Well, I often feel like you're taking Wayne's(ph) place. I feel like you're my son.

Mr. WARGA: She thought I was my dad, Wayne. In her mind, he was alive again, and me, Jake--I'm not sure I'd been born yet. Each year I felt a panic that I would lose her, and with her would go the last connection I have to my past. My mom died a year after my father.

This is from July Fourth, Grandma's 91st birthday.

Ms. KELSEY: Jake? I don't know. I don't know how it ever came to be, Jake. You don't have any grandparents, any parents. I'm the only one. So you have to remember that. I'm still around.

Mr. WARGA: In 2001, Grandma got kicked out of the retirement place she was living. She had the habit of calling the police every time she misplaced her purse, which was a lot. My uncle, her other son, took her into his home for a while. It's there in 2001 I asked her what she thought was happening to her.

Ms. KELSEY: Me? I'm going out of it.

Mr. WARGA: Is that frightening to you?

Ms. KELSEY: No, not at all.

Mr. WARGA: What's it like?

Ms. KELSEY: It's--I forget about it all the time. I'm over 90, and I'm not afraid of that, either. I just don't want anybody to suffer over it, including me. Looks like I'm just going to fall on the steps and there it go, because you know, there's no pain, no nothing. It's wonderful. And don't cry when I tell you I go. Eat your eggs, and then I'll come back.

Mr. WARGA: That night I put her to bed, and I kept the recorder running. I didn't want to miss a thing.

Ms. KELSEY: OK, well...

Mr. WARGA: Good night.

Ms. KELSEY: Goodbye, sweetheart.

Mr. WARGA: Love you.

Ms. KELSEY: Love you, too. I won't see--well, yes, I'll probably see you in the morning.

Mr. WARGA: I hope so.

Ms. KELSEY: I'm getting worse. You know, I'm 89, 88, something like that, and all the things that went wrong--all are OK. ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. WARGA: Yeah.

Ms. KELSEY: Can't do much, but at least I can breathe and be sure and give Grandma my love.

Mr. WARGA: A year later, I tried to get the speakeasy story out of her.

Ms. KELSEY: What do you want me to say?

Mr. WARGA: How old were you when you went to the speakeasy?

Ms. KELSEY: I don't remember. You were on one of them. What do you want me to do?

Mr. WARGA: Talk.

Ms. KELSEY: No, not the story.

Mr. WARGA: Tell me where you are.

Ms. KELSEY: Lincoln, Nebraska. Eat your breakfast.

Mr. WARGA: By 2002, she had slipped so far backwards in time, she thought we were in Nebraska, her childhood home, and that I was her brother Leroy(ph). She hadn't been to the speakeasy yet, so there was no story.

Ms. KELSEY: Get it off. OK. Get it off.

Mr. WARGA: Say good night, Gracie.

Ms. KELSEY: Good night, Gracie. Now eat your eggs.

Mr. WARGA: I saw her last spring. She's now in a private home that takes care of the elderly. I brought some flowers and a little stuffed puppy, a cute one with droopy ears and big eyes. She looked at me with the same expression, took it and started to wrap it in newspaper like a market fish. I didn't stop her.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WARGA: The thing about death is that it's final, but loss in this case has been gradual. My grandmother is gone, but she's still here. She didn't say much, but she was happy, and really that's all I can ask for now.

Ms. KELSEY: It's wonderful to have the kids here to play, not to play so much, to just sit around and talk. It's been a wonderful life. We should have had 10, 12 kids so that we could have more grandchildren here. That's what makes life interesting. Want to turn it off?

Mr. WARGA: No, keep talking.

Ms. KELSEY: I can't. I haven't got anything else to tell. Told you all my life.

Mr. WARGA: Uh-huh.

SIEGEL: Independent producer Jake Warga lives in Seattle. His story comes to us by way of HearingVoices.com.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.