Each day when I went out to do the census, I never knew what kind of people I would meet. What I would glimpse in the lives of my fellow residents. One thing I noticed while doing my forays into neighborhoods, is an invisible mental health epidemic.
Though all we hear about right now is the novel coronavirus, there is another health crisis going on behind the doors of homes all over America: dementia. Sometimes senile, sometimes induced by substances such as THC and meth. On your street. On mine. Hidden away usually, this mental health epidemic became apparent to me as I worked.
Census in Wonderland
On another wild goose mission to find a non-existent address, I finally knocked on a random door in the general vicinity of the target house number. The door opened after some time, and a blowsy old woman in a nightgown, somewhat vacant of expression, stepped out onto the porch and greeted me. I explained who I was and asked for help with locating the house in question.
Like someone in Alice in Wonderland, she said serenely, “You’ll have to wait,” and she pirouetted like a queen, stepped back in the house and shut the door. I was momentarily stunned and thought, “Well, I never!” I sat on a bench and tried to use the iphone map again to find the address.
The door opened and a woman of about 50 came out. Clearly the old woman’s daughter, she shooed her mother back away from the foyer and asked me with much irritation what my business was. She was unable to help me and made me feel that even sitting on their porch bench for a minute was an imposition.
But I realized her irritation was with her mother, not me, and that she was embarrassed because I had seen what she is dealing with every day: a parent with Alzheimer’s. The front door closed and I turned around to a street of houses faceless and pristine, every family’s personal tragedies private and unseen.
Knots and Dead Ends
In the countryside, more than in the cities, we still come across the descendants of founding families. The great, great grandchildren of original pioneer homesteaders whose farms named the roads, though their 160 acre parcels have long since been divided and distributed to the generations,
At one such place, I was getting information from what we call a “proxy” — a neighbor, landlord, or other knowledgeable person who can tell us about the inhabitants at an address. Turns out the road was named after his family’s homestead.
He was in his late 60s, very clean, with an impeccably trimmed beard and a well-coiffed mane of greying auburn hair. Looked a lot like Kris Kristofferson. Suddenly he said, “Are you from the loony bin? Was it you I talked to before?” Umm, no… “My grandson said he was going to call somebody on me. Says I’m crazy. Imagine that. After I gave him a piece of land!”
“No, sir, I am from the US Census. See my badge? I just need to record who lives at this singlewide here. Your grandson lives here? By himself?”
“No, he has a girlfriend. A big girl, if you get my drift,” he answered with a wink.
Between mostly quite lucid conversation and seemingly accurate information (if he didn’t know something, he said so), he claimed his wife had slept with the entire navy base back in the 70s and so his three sons weren’t his sons, though he raised them. So the grandson wasn’t his blood grandson and he was an ingrate.
“If you knew they weren’t yours, why then did you stick around and raise them?”
He looked at me and said after a pause, “It wasn’t their fault. They needed someone.”
I said, “Whoever raised them is their father, so you are their father, regardless.” He told me about how each of his sons/not sons has a parcel of the original farm, “up thataway.” I can’t remember if his wife divorced him or if she died.
We chatted about other things, and then suddenly he asked, “Are you from the loony bin? Was it you I talked to before?”
And that’s when it clicked that in all likelihood, his wife hadn’t slept with the entire navy base, nor probably are his kids ingrates or trying to put him away. His brain has knots and dead ends, and if his thoughts meandered into those areas, he was adrift. Dementia doesn’t usually come on all of a sudden, but in patches. Mostly, he was fine. He clearly was not neglecting to eat or bathe, didn’t looked crazed or anything. But his cognitive decline is undoubtedly inexorable.
Some weeks later, I was assigned an address that turned out to be his son, “up thataway”. He seemed a perfectly decent family guy. You’d never know his was another family dealing with the cognitive decline of an elder. As we Boomers age, there are just going to be more and more families trying to manage dementia, with very little help from the government.
Over in the next county, a woman about my age was exiting a long, long drive which was on my list. I flagged her down and she said she was resident in Oregon and was just visiting her son who lives here. She had an appointment to get to, but was hesitant for me to go up to the house to interview her son.
“He doesn’t get a lot of visitors…” she said nervously. “How old is he?”, I asked. “Forty-one,” she answered. I said somewhat drily, “I think he will survive.” She smiled wanly and said, “Yes, I’m sure you’re right…” She didn’t seem sure.
The drive was a steep, rough track barely hanging onto the side of the hill, definitely a challenge for my little Prius. Her son could not have failed to hear me plowing up there, but when I knocked on the tattered singlewide, no one answered. I walked around to the back and spotted a disheveled, dark haired, bearded man trying to surreptitiously flee through the raggedy garden.
I called out to him with my signature good cheer, “Howdy! I’m from the US Census, here to do a questionnaire for this address.” Since he could not gracefully escape, he relented and we commenced the interview.
He would not look me in the eye, looked everywhere but at me. I realized then that he was mentally ill, a homesteading hermit, hiding away from the world. That’s why his mother was worried about me just turning up there. Another case of a family dealing with mental illness, but too private to say the words.
Terrific, I thought — I get to interview a Unibomber.
He was a second generation eastern European, I forget which country. I double-checked the spelling and the pronunciation of his name, because I think it is very important to pronounce people’s names correctly. We talked about spelling in his mother’s native language, and I got him to chuckle at least when I told of my theory that the Balkan wars were all caused by the chronic shortage of vowels in Slavic languages.
When we got to the question of race, he muttered that he didn’t like that kind of question, and when was the world going to get over race? I said, I agree completely — and I told him that is the question that census workers most hate to have to ask.
“Why don’t they have a choice that just says ‘Human’?” he asked.
I exclaimed, “I can do that!” Under race, we do have a choice “Other” and the option to write in whatever race a person says they are. I tapped in “Human”. I then read back the summary of the information I had input for him, ending with Race: Other: Human. That made him very happy.
Done with that Drama!
At a well-kept trailer park in town, a woman with her arm in a sling scolded her barking dogs and stepped out under her carport to answer the census questions. We got onto the subject of ex-husbands because she had just divorced her husband and was going back to her maiden name, after decades.
We chatted a little about the day’s news. She said, “All this hullabaloo in the cities (referring to Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality), I just don’t know. But if they think they’re going to start trouble in the suburbs…”
I said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. America is too well-fed to have a revolution. Most people would rather just sit on their sofas and play video games or watch so-called reality TV. And now with marijuana legalized, there’s even less incentive to get off the sofa.”
She said, “Ain’t that the truth! I grew up in Alaska, way in the wilderness. We had an outhouse even in the winter. That was tough. I’ve worked all of my life since I was 12, and nowadays people complain about this or that, and I say, life could be so much harder! Stop your bellyaching.
“And marijuana — that’s why I had to divorce my husband. He really got into it. He was smoking so much, he started getting all paranoid. He runs in one day saying the black helicopters are after him and are circling the house overhead. I didn’t hear anything. I told him, I was in the military, and I don’t hear no rotors! Crazy. The stories I could tell you. I am so glad do be done with that DRAMA! Just me and my dogs, we’re good here. Going to be a great year!”
Signs of the Times
So on top of unavoidable mental illness and dementia, there is also a lot of substance-induced mental illness. After another afternoon of unfriendly locked gates festooned with “Keep Out! No Trespassing! Beware of Dogs! Private Property!” signs, I asked one respondent in a very beautiful rural peninsula, “What’s with all the locked gates and nasty signs — is there some kind of crime wave going on out here?”
He looked at me sadly and said, “Lotta meth around.” Oh. If they aren’t crazy before they get on it, they’re sure to be crazy during and after.
So dementia and mental illness are all around us. In every neighborhood, in every locale. I have no suggestions about how to deal with it, I only know that every family has a story, and in America, everybody has to deal with it on their own, because we have no mental health infrastructure even remotely up to the enormity of the problem.
And we Boomers keep getting older and older…