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Older people cling to their independence

Floyd Milne slowly opens a can of orange juice while Dulcie Milne prepares lunch at their home. They have been married for 71 years and hope to continue to take care of themselves. 
 (Photos by Holly Pickett/ / The Spokesman-Review)
Floyd Milne slowly opens a can of orange juice while Dulcie Milne prepares lunch at their home. They have been married for 71 years and hope to continue to take care of themselves. (Photos by Holly Pickett/ / The Spokesman-Review)

Floyd and Dulcie Milne made no plans for living beyond 90. Didn’t see the point. He smoked for 45 years. His mother died of a stroke at 57. Dulcie’s mom died at 65.

They have, however, given thought to how they’d like to die: Together, at their home in Otis Orchards, having lived independently to the very end.

“It’s this life and then the fireworks,” said Floyd, who has been Dulcie’s man since 1933, the year he found her on a stump farm in tiny Lane, Idaho, and swept her away. He is weeks away from 92. His wife of 71 years is 91. Neither wants to be the one left behind for their kids to dote on, once the other is gone. Neither wants to be alone.

“Like our neighbors, one day he was outside and died. She found him, tried to go back to the house, and dropped dead on the porch,” said Floyd.

Their dream of independence is shared by a majority of seniors, the fastest growing age group in the country, according to the U.S. Census. Those older seniors aren’t finding it easy to stay out of the rest home, though. Health, depression, financial strain and transportation challenges are tremendous.

Even the Milnes, who still drive and rely sparingly on their children for help vacuuming and lawn mowing, have a tenuous independence, easily upset by injury or lost driving privileges.

“Research tells us that most people want to stay in their familiar environment as long as possible,” said Maria Hernandez-Peck, chairwoman for the Washington State Council on Aging.

And society needs seniors to live independently as long as possible, said Hernandez-Peck, because taxpayers pick up roughly half the nation’s bill for institutional managed care. In Spokane County, the elderly make up closer to 15 percent of the population, or 67,995 people, said Hernandez-Peck. The elder population is high in the Spokane area, she speculated, because seniors are drawn to Spokane for medical services. Nationally, people 65 and older make up 12.4 percent of the population, but things are changing fast as baby boomers become seniors. Nationally, 5,574 people turn 65 each day, Hernandez-Peck said.

But it’s seniors older than 80, like the Milnes, not baby boomers, who have elder service providers concerned. Eighty is when the going really gets tough for those living independently. It’s when men begin dying and women begin living alone.

Women outnumber men 245 to 100 beginning at age 85, Hernandez-Peck said. After a spouse dies, seniors living alone often suffer from long-term depression. And 47 percent of people 85 and older suffer from some form of dementia, said Hernandez-Peck.

Nothing is new about the problems facing seniors after 80, but the number of seniors facing those problems is on the rise because of life-extending medical advancements. The 80-and-older crowd accounted for 14,850 Spokane County residents in the 2000 Census and is expected to be 29 percent larger in 15 years.

The 80-and-older crowd is hard to reach, said senior care providers, because their tolerance for suffering is extremely high. These are the children of the Great Depression, said Nick Beamer, director of Aging and Long-term Care of Eastern Washington. They don’t flinch at hard times, until things become extremely bad.

“When I started here, we were very concerned about older individuals,” Beamer said. “And when we talked to them, in many cases they were all doing ‘fine.’ They were very used to having less heat, less money. They’re very resilient.”

Rough times

Those rough scrapes with some of the worst times in the last century of American history are why Floyd Milne jokingly suggested titling his life story, “They Barely Made It.” When he married Dulcie in September 1933, he had $5 to his name and no job to speak of. Their first home was a miner’s shack, offered to them on condition that they look after the accompanying property.

Dulcie got a job doing housework for 10 cents an hour. Floyd landed a job with the Works Progress Administration building a bridge over Rose Lake, Idaho, a few miles east of Fourth of July Pass. The going rate for bridge workers was about 60 cents an hour, but Floyd agreed to work high above the bridge deck, where 90 cents was the going rate. The path to work was five miles down a railroad bed.

They moved to the Spokane Valley, where Floyd worked three jobs until a friend got Floyd work at Morrison Seed, a pea company. Morrison turned out to be a Floyd’s employer for 38 years. It also kept him from being separated from his family during World War II; the seed company’s owner was on the draft board.

Asking for public assistance is the last thing the Milnes would do. Floyd still drives, though he admits Spokane’s busy streets can be too much. When driving to the store, or the doctor’s office, Floyd sticks to the back roads. Their daughter, Idell Jenicek, 65, comes by to vacuum their floors and her husband mows their lawn; otherwise the Milnes handle things themselves. The couple’s medicine cabinet resembles a small pharmacy. A one-week supply of ointment for Floyd’s back costs $66. His kidneys are failing, and doctors don’t give him long to live.

Because seniors like the Milnes would never think about contacting senior care providers themselves, area aging officials have recruited all kinds of people to keep an eye out for seniors in need. Postal workers, bank tellers, meter readers, even bartenders have been trained as “gatekeepers,” volunteers who report seniors in distress to social services. They look for signs of abuse, alcoholism or depression.

Seniors can suffer depression and not realize it, said Pam Sloan, director of Elder Services. Characteristics like anger or constant frustration can be signs of depression and can be fixed. Seniors with late-life depression often feel like they’re merely waiting for their lives to end, said Sloan.

“You see someone who is depressed and you see them after six months or nine months of treatment and they’re different,” Sloan said. “They talk about things in a positive way again. They also talk about what they can do for other people. Their quality of sleep improves. The irony is sometimes you treat someone and they don’t notice a difference, even when the people around them do.”

Help available

It doesn’t hurt, Sloan said, to see what services are available for seniors even if they have family members lending a hand. Seniors can qualify for everything from help with house-cleaning to assistance with heating bills. Family members often don’t realize what help is available.

“We didn’t know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid,” said Gail Goeller, a Spokane woman who recently wrote a book based on her experiences caring for five relatives from old age to death.

“You wait until you’re in a crisis because none of us ever believe these people will ever linger on, let alone die.”

Her book, “Coming of Age With Aging Parents: The Bungles, Battles & Blessings,” is sold at Auntie’s bookstore.

Goeller and her husband, John, helped both sets of parents live mostly independently until death. They also helped an aunt do the same. Their lessons on life and aging were endless, Goeller said. When her father in-law died, they soon realized that John’s mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s, which his parents had craftily concealed.

Goeller’s own parents were reluctant to admit they were having a hard time living independently. They also had no financial plan for life after retirement and no insurance.

“They had enough wood cut, enough to stoke the stove. The house was paid for. They had a will; Dad wrote his own. We all knew where it was,” Goeller said.

They also never discussed with Goeller to what lengths doctors should go to in order to revive them. Goeller is now trying to let her own kids know what her wishes are concerning her later life and medical treatment. It’s been tough, she said, because the topic makes her daughter uncomfortable, but it is necessary.

On the refrigerator door in the Milnes’ kitchen, there is a “green sheet” intended to instruct Floyd’s family about his wishes for medical care should he lose consciousness. His doctor gave him the sheet a month ago after telling Floyd his end was near. He hasn’t filled it out, yet. As bad as Floyd’s health is, Dulcie’s is hardly better. Just two months ago, doctors removed a portion of her large intestine and didn’t expect she would survive the surgery.

Floyd and Dulcie say they would want no attempt made to keep them breathing after they cannot on their own. They’d prefer to be spared any medical heroics. Just bring on the fireworks.