Five years ago, when a new Jewish geriatric campus opened in Dedham, Massachusetts, I grabbed a friend and we started a “Dear Abby” group. I don’t remember how we got the idea. Since the beginning, we’ve met with the same 10 frail women, most in their 90s, every other Wednesday, 10:30 to noon. I call them “my ladies.” We just lost our first at 102. To prepare, I bake brownies, cookies, nothing fancy — I love to bake — and Dori cuts and pastes “Dear Abby,” and that’s the end of it.
“Dear Abby,” Dori reads. “When my neighbor walks her dog, it always does its business on my property….” I might ask my ladies, “When you were growing up, did you have a dog?” After another column, I might say: “Did you know anyone who had a gay child?” “Anyone in your family get divorced?” The dirtier the better. When the man has an affair, or there’s a little adultery: “If you saw your girlfriend’s husband, would you tell?”
My ladies are extremely opinionated. Extremely. It’s not “I think.” It’s “I know.” They criticize one another, bickering back and forth, and are very caring, very protective. Sometimes it’s “Real-Life Dear Abby”: A woman in the group who’s 100, her son got divorced and she’s still close to her daughter-in-law, which infuriates her son. “What would you do, Vivian?” I ask. When Dori was going on vacation with her family, her college-aged son wanted to invite his girlfriend. “Should I get another room?” “Is it appropriate?” My ladies always have what to say. Is their advice good? Not really.
“Dear Abby, when my husband and I eat out, he insists on…” My ladies are reminded that they miss things. Like Chinese restaurants. So twice a year, at Hanukah and in the summer, we bring them take-out. You’d think we were bringing gold.
“Dear Abby, my brother-in-law is an alcoholic…” One lady pipes up, “I used to like a cocktail once in a while.” Another lady: “Well, you can drink here, you know.” “Yeah, I’m sure you could have a drink if you wanted it.” “I don’t want to drink alone.” “Jayne, you always come in the morning. What if you come in the afternoon without the cookies?” They all got doctors’ notes, we came with a cooler, and we had wine, crackers, and cheese. Boy, they drank!
The “Dear Abby” part is kind of inconsequential. It’s the questions you ask after, you have to pull out from them. “Did you allow this when you had a teenager?” I do a lot of gatekeeping. “You have to wait your turn.” Some of them can go on forever. “That’s a great story, Diane, but let’s hear from Ruthie now.” A “Dear Abby” group would be a great way to integrate a new resident.
I love to hear my ladies talk about their children; you can tell what kinds of mothers they were. Some are boastful, sometimes their kids come; their kids are older than me. We do a lot of screaming now. Over the years, it’s changed. “I lost my hearing aid!” “What? What?” We read “Dear Abby” more slowly. They need shouting.
My husband had cancer for six years, and when he recovered — my ladies prayed for him for so long! — I made him come with me. He said, “I love you very much, Jayne, but you talk like they’re really with it. Half of them are sleeping.” “Yeah, but they wake up. They’ve gotten old.” So you wake them up and you say, “What do you think?” A neat little lady, drop-dead gorgeous, she’s failing, not doing well, she falls asleep and I say, “Hey Margie, get up.” We celebrate their birthdays; we bring little trinkets from the Dollar Store.
It doesn’t matter what you talk about, what matters is conversation. I just know this has made a huge difference in my ladies’ lives. I’ve done substantial volunteer work in my life, but this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever engaged in.
My workplace has wanted me to up my hours, but there are certain pieces of my life that I am not willing to give up, like my ladies. I will never give up the ladies. It’s weird how special this has become to me.
Jayne Lampert volunteers at Newbridge on the Charles, a part of Hebrew SeniorLife, and is the Director of Annual Giving at a social service agency in Massachusetts.