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What We Can Learn From the Lost and Found

As we age, the things we misplace change — and their loss brings more stress

By Jane Gross

The cramped office of the Himan Brown Senior Program at New York City's venerable 92nd Street Y community center offers an unofficial glimpse of what future "lost and found'' collections may look like in a rapidly aging nation.
The program's participants, physically and cognitively fit for a broad menu of exercise classes, academic offerings and cultural field trips, are all 60-plus — hardly aged to this almost-66-year-old first-year writing instructor. But what they (and sometimes "they" includes "me") leave behind at the Y is predictably different, say, from the towels, goggles and flip-flops that pile up daily at the town pool in my Westchester County village.
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At the pool, the "losers" are generally children, unaware or unconcerned that they've left something behind. The "finders" are the teenage employees who clean up each night and, ultimately, parents disinclined to replace summer gear just as the stores fill with back-to-school merchandise.

What goes astray at the Y, by contrast, is more varied — and the reactions of those who come looking are more often alarmed.
Some of what they lose is innocuous: umbrellas, thermos bottles, gloves and scarves. Other items are critical, like canes, hearing aids and dentures. The seekers often feel distress verging on panic. That's partly because after a certain age everything you misplace seems to portend dementia, though it usually signals no such thing, and partly because the items are expensive, essential or difficult to replace. More than anything, these are adults who do not want to feel that they're losing control of their own lives.
Unacceptable Losses

For as long as I've been going to the Y to teach my weekly class, a jacket has been on display, on a hanger hooked to over-flowing bookshelves in the reception area. Pinned to it is a note signed "Sam," explaining that its female owner must have mistakenly taken his black golf jacket and left behind this "woman's large from Banana Republic." He asks that she please claim her jacket and return his. I'm told that Sam checks back frequently, to no avail. I have asked my students, all women, if they perchance have Sam's jacket. Beyond that, I don't know how to help.
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Those who come into the office looking for something they've lost are often as precise in the telling as Sam. One week, a woman inquired about a red-and-blue lunch box, repeating that description several times, with increasing concern, until on the fourth try she added the detail that it was "mostly red with just a little blue." I pictured the American flag, but couldn't remember the color distribution. Were the stripes red and white or was that the stars? And what did it mean that I couldn't remember?
Another woman, unable to find her MetroCard, needed to ride the city's buses and subways, began to describe what it looked like until a part-time nurse who works for the program gently reminded her that all MetroCards look alike. Nobody had turned one in, the nurse said, so the woman probably had no choice but to buy another one before getting on the bus, a more common mode of transportation for Y users than the subway, with its flights of cement stairs and late-for-something younger adults shoving their way up and down, heedless of the safety of the elderly.
At some point, I lost the thread of their conversation because I had begun rummaging through my own purse looking for the garage ticket for my car. Missing! Had I failed to take it from the attendant? Had I dropped it in the street? Left it in my classroom? Would they hold the car hostage or charge me for 24 hours rather than two? My panic, I knew, was unnecessary. Most likely, the ticket wasn't lost at all. Once I stopped worrying that I was losing things I didn't used to lose – once I stopped actually looking for it – there it would be.

Is there anyone past a certain age who doesn't have these moments? And who doesn't learn, over time, that they are fueled by anxiety, not encroaching dementia? At least for now.
Lost hearing aids and dentures are a problem of a different order. If you wear neither, set aside your bafflement at how so many people could manage to lose what are effectively parts of their bodies. The truth is, either can fall out. But more commonly, because they are sometimes uncomfortable, hearing aids and dentures are knowingly taken out, the former at a moment when it isn't needed, and the latter to be rinsed off after eating, as a teenager might with a bite plate retainer.
Hearing aids and dentures are wildly expensive "accessories," generally not covered by Medicare or other insurance. A pair of hearing aids ranges from about $1,800 to $6,800, according to Consumer Reports, not including the repeat adjustments generally needed to get them working properly. This is not a trivial expense for anyone, but especially not a person on a fixed income facing rising costs for everything from medical care to MetroCards.


Eyeglasses fall in the same category. If someone has invented a GPS-powered "Find My Glasses" app, all of us should get it. Short of that, we should give up our vanity and get one of those eyeglass cords, even if we hate the "old lady" look.
Reversals of Fortune

Among the most plaintive visitors to the Y's lost-and-found are those who can't find their high-end smart phones, often purchased for them by adult children who pay the monthly bill, probably as part of an economical family plan, although their parents may not realize that.
The loss of a cell phone prompts an emotion in the elderly akin to that of a misbehaving youngster. It reminds me of how I felt more than a half-century ago when I accidently threw away my bite plate and had to paw through the trash with my father at my shoulder, irritably reminding me how much it cost and how irresponsible I'd been. And it reminds me of friends who cover their twentysomethings' cell phone bills but expect, in return, some vigilance about not wildly running over the data plan and incurring usurious surcharges.
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The role reversals of old age, as parents become dependent on their children, are always painful, and rarely so apparent as the day I watched a woman who lost her cell phone break into tears in the center's office.
"My daughter," she said, "will kill me."

Jane Gross, a retired correspondent for the New York Times and the founder of its blog The New Old Age, is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Knopf 2011, Vintage 2012). Read More
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