“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

Shannondale, the retirement community where my parents reside, is populated with a delightful cast of characters, geezers of all shapes and sizes, with their own peculiarities and geriatric charm. One of my favorites is Julia (the Belle of Monteagle), who was the It Girl of the Old Folks Home until a series of unfortunate events.

Julia is a Southern belle, born and bred, and she summers in a small exclusive enclave on the Cumberland Plateau known as Monteagle. Julia was renowned for her lovely parties, her impeccable fashion sense and her prowess at the bridge table before Alzheimer’s reared its ugly head and landed her in Shannondale. She made the move with her ancient but still mentally adroit husband Walter (pronounced “Wal-tah” in Julia’s thick-as-syrup Southern drawl). Walter made it to 101 but has since passed on to his reward shortly after an infamous Thanksgiving dinner at my house, but that is a story for another time.

Just as Blanche Dubois depended on the kindness of strangers, Julia relied on her adoring husband to take care of her as she succumbed to the cruel embrace of dementia. She may have put a pillow in the microwave, but she never lost her poise and pluck. Or her card smarts. Julia was part of several bridge foursomes, both at Shannondale and also at Cherokee Country Club.

Overheard at the bridge table …

Julia, with guileless charm, to her bridge partner, Chalmers, also afflicted with Alzheimer’s: “Chalmers, do you know where you live?”

Chalmers, flummoxed and somewhat affronted by the inquiry: “Well … no. Do YOU know where you live?”

Julia: “No, I haven’t any idea.”

Chalmers, relieved and in a conspiratorial whisper: “Neither do I. They just drop me off here to play cards and then take me to a different hotel every night.”

Walter didn’t play bridge. But he could regale you for hours with stories from his days as a journalist during World War II, having interviewed Churchill and shared a single malt in the Oval Office with Roosevelt. Or maybe it was Harry Truman. But in my mind, his greatest accomplishment was caring for Julia with indefatigable kindness and undying love. He was a curmudgeonly geezer, but Walter never lost his patience with Julia, despite her disease.

“Waltah,” she’d ask over and over again, “How old ARE you?”

Walter: “Julia, you know how old I am.”

Julia: “No, truly I don’t.”

Walter: “If you round up, I’m almost 200.”

I’m quite sure Julia never thought she’d outlive her husband. And when he died, she was forced to leave the comfortable familiarity of Shannondale, where she and Walter hosted Gmamma and DooDaddy for cocktails and Cheetos in their elegant apartment lined floor to ceiling with oil paintings in gilded frames. Over the nondescript beige carpets, Julia laid opulent oriental rugs, despite the fact that she and Walter regularly tripped over them on their walkers. Hung over the bed they still shared was a glamorous portrait of Julia at the height of her beauty.

Julia took Walter’s death hard. Then she summoned her steel magnolia strength and faced the future, resigned to make the best of a fate she never chose. She was moved to an assisted living facility in Atlanta to be closer to her family. Julia still calls DooDaddy in the middle of the night sometimes in a panic. When he tries to call her back on Walter’s cell phone, there’s no answer. Julia has run away from her new home on occasion and has been seen wandering down Peachtree Street.

Old age is not for the faint of heart, y’all. Or the weak of spirit. Julia is neither. She is lovely and gracious and brave. Her addled mind and her physical frailty can never diminish her humanity.

Julia and Walter on the occasion of Walter's 101st birthday

Julia and Walter on the occasion of Walter’s 101st birthday