The Open Road
It's hard for Janice Simpkins to get out anymore. Mostly, life is spent indoors with Boots and Buster. But her old brown Chevy is still in the carport, just in case.
“Old Brown” sits just inside of the cinderblock carport under Janice Simpkins’ home. Paw prints from the abundance of stray cats that roam the neighborhood are embedded in the thick coat of dirt that has accumulated in the years since it was last driven, which by Simpkins’ best guess is somewhere around five or six. Officially, Old Brown is a 1978 Chevrolet Caprice, a hulking box of Detroit steel with chrome bumpers, crushed velvet bench seats and an imposing V8 engine. In its day, it was considered one of Chevrolet’s luxury brands.
It was purchased new by Simpkins’ father, but when he passed away 22 years ago, she inherited the keys and the freedom the car brought with it. Its sheer size and steel body made it nearly indestructible, which is one of the reasons why she loved driving it so much. Being inside it made her feel comfortable and secure against the unpredictability of the outside world. Life was an open road.
“I loved driving that car,” she says.
Unfortunately—sadly—those days have passed. Simpkins renewed her driver’s license last year, but it’s really just a form of ID now. She doesn’t drive anymore. She can’t. Over the course of the last several years the strains of life and the fragility of the body crossed paths, leaving her almost exclusively homebound. She pays her neighbor to go to the grocery for her. She calls for senior transportation if she needs a ride to a doctor’s appointment, although often she simply pays her neighbor for a ride. The open road has become a dead-end street.
Like so many seniors, Simpkins doesn’t want to exchange the freedom of living in her own home for the social or health benefits of a retirement community or nursing home. The result is being socially isolated, one of the most common challenges facing seniors today. A housekeeper comes once a week to clean. She gets visits from her Meals on Wheels driver once a week as well. Mostly, though, it’s just her, with Buster and Boots to keep her company.
Buster is a longhair Calico Tabby mix who, at the moment, is sound asleep on the white wicker love seat that sits against the wood-paneled wall. He doesn’t budge as Janice sits down next to him in the recliner across from the large-screen TV. Buster was born in the house, part of a litter from Max, her previous cat. Boots was a neighborhood stray who just walked in the door and made himself at home, and is at the moment looking to make a home in Janice’s lap.
“They’re wonderful company,” she says, giving Boots some pets.
There’s also Meowy, who’s slowly working his way into the family. The neighborhood stray has a litter of kittens nearby and stops by each morning and meows until Janice opens the door and feeds him. A number of years ago, she placed a large wooden box out on the porch next to the front door that was designed to be a shelter for the strays. Many still visit, along with a variety of birds and, recently, an unwanted family of raccoons.
There have always been stray cats around the house, at least as far back as Janice can remember, which is a long time. She grew up in the house. Her parents bought the home in 1952 when she was 11 years old. When she got married, she and her husband, Ted, lived in Cheviot and then bought a two-bedroom home on 1.5 acres just a few miles away in Miamitown. There was a shed out back for Ted’s tools and a bar down in the basement that was always lined with assorted bottles that were given to him as gifts by the men he oversaw working as a clerk for the railroad.
When Ted and both of her parents all passed away within a few years of each other, she decided she didn’t need to be taking care of so much property, Janice downsized. It was the closing of a chapter and a bittersweet ending of a full life. She moved back into her childhood home. It’s small. She can’t get up the stairs anymore, but it’s enough.
In addition to being alone, one of the other major challenges with living alone as a senior is handling health issues, such as the “spells” she started experiencing a few years ago. At one point, as she was sitting in her kitchen chair, she blacked out and fell out of the chair and onto the floor. Her neighbor found her and got her to the hospital where she was put on a respirator.
“They said it was to give my lungs a rest,” she says. It was a scary time.
She doesn’t remember much except waking up with a breathing tube in her throat. The doctors told her she was coughing up blood and actually died on them. She thinks they’re full of hooey. Still, the trach tube remains and she now wears a call alert bracelet on her left wrist.
During her recovery, a nurse recommended Meals on Wheels, which has made her life much easier.
“I don’t have to go to the store or cook,” she says. “And they do have some pretty good food.”
Not getting enough to eat can also be a challenge for homebound seniors, although she has that taken care of. She worries about who would find her if she blacks out again but likes that her Meals driver checks in on her – and on her animals. It’s lonely but home is exactly where Janice wants to be.
She puts Boots on the floor and walks out onto the porch. She points to where Meowy lives. She makes note of the overgrown bushes on the side of the house she wants to trim back.
“Be careful going down these steps,” she says. “They’re pretty wobbly. Oh, and be sure and check out Old Brown on your way out.”
She smiles at the thought of the car. Oh for those days on the open road again.