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Reflections on Aging: Gather Ye Blueberries While Ye May

Two items deep inside the Valley News caught my attention one Sunday morning. On one page, I found a story headlined, “Nursing Home Torn Apart When Residents With Dementia Have Sex.” On the very next page came a different sort of dispatch, the obituary of Galen Earl Mudgett Sr., a Vermonter who at the age of 90 “passed away peacefully while picking blueberries.”

There was no connection between these items, other than the fact that they appeared in the same newspaper and involved persons of advanced age. No connection, that is, except that they both involved questions of freedom for the old, ease for the young and the dignity that is lost — or maintained — when the two intersect.

The nursing home story was set in Coralville, Iowa, where two residents of the Windmill Manor nursing home took a shine to one another. She was an 87-year-old retired secretary whose husband, while still alive, did not visit often. He was a 78-year-old divorcee, a retired college professor and author. Both lived in a wing of the facility for patients with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. (Neither patient was named in the article.)

Early in the morning one day shortly before Thanksgiving 2009, nurse Starla Wheelock checked the woman’s bedroom and found her and her male neighbor, who lived in the room across the hall, in bed, naked from the waist down. They were talking. The female resident became upset when the nurse asked the man to get dressed and leave the room. The next month, on Christmas evening, two other nurses reported to their superior that they had found the couple having intercourse in the gentleman’s room. One nurse would later say he was “going to town.”

When notified by nursing home officials, relatives of the two residents reacted not with alarm but with understanding. The woman’s son declined the offer of a hospital examination for his mother, saying he thought it had been “a mutual sexual act.” But then state regulators got involved and set in motion a chain of events that led to the firing of the nursing home administrator and head nurse, a heavy fine and, later, a lawsuit. The lovers were separated and forced to move to different facilities where, inside of a year, they died far from each other’s arms.

Which brings us to the story of Galen Earl Mudgett Sr. The obituary informed me that he had made good use of his nine decades on this Earth. He graduated in 1940 from South Royalton High School, continuing his education at the Vermont School of Agriculture and spending the next 35 years rising mornings to milk cows, muck stalls and perform other responsibilities at his Sharon dairy farm. He married the former Hazel Bicknell and, after she died following 52 years of marriage, married the former Martha Pearl, who remained at his side until his death 17 years later. He was father and grandfather to five children and 13 grandchildren. And he still found time to serve as town meeting moderator, justice of the peace, school director, selectman, state representative and fence viewer. He enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow campers in the Good Sam’s Club. He played trumpet in the town band.

And then, there were those blueberries. The obituary didn’t tell much about them, so I called one of Mr. Mudgett’s daughters, Sandra Whitney, to learn more. She said that when she was a child, her father brought her and her siblings each summer to a blueberry patch. But this was no leisurely stroll through the field. Their father handed out buckets and each child — along with Mr. Mudgett — raced to see who would be the first to fill one.

Time passed. The children grew and went on to create cherished rituals with families of their own. Mr. Mudgett’s health declined and he was forced to live in an assisted living facility and breathe with help from an oxygen tank. But he didn’t leave his love of blueberry picking — or his competitive spirit — behind. And so it was that on a day in late July, he went with his wife and fellow residents of the home to a blueberry field near Lake Elmore. Toting his oxygen tank, he raced around the field until he had filled his baseball cap with berries and, while the others were still laboring, he took a seat by the road and drew his final breaths.

Did anyone think of telling Mr. Mudgett that he was too old or infirm to pick blueberries on a hot summer day? His daughter laughed uproariously at the notion. “He was doing what he loved to do right up until the last.”

As people age, they often lose some of the physical and mental capacity that allows them to live as independently as they once did. They need help paying their bills, attending to their physical needs, navigating the shoals of confusion and loneliness. Even those who remain clear-minded, like Mr. Mudgett, need help making it to the patch where blueberries grow as fat and round as they did in the memories of youth. The family members, friends and professionals who provide such help must do so with love, patience and the knowledge that an older person’s choice might involve a certain amount of risk and, yes, inconvenience for his or her younger caretakers.

These are not simple choices but they are vital ones. Those who make them should temper their fears with the realization that for every human being, the yearning for the soft touch of another’s skin will, like the sweetness of those blueberries, never pass away.

Former Valley News Editor Jeffrey Good is co-editor of Seven Days in Vermont, where this essay first appeared.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

To the Editor: Bless you for continuing to print Jeffrey Good’s essays despite his moving on from the Valley News. His “Reflections on Aging: Gather Ye Blueberries While You May” (Perspectives, Jan. 12) will stay on my table for a long time, as did his earlier pieces. And we still have Marty Frank writing wise words (“Response to a Rarity,” …