The old and shrunk woman ahead of me is no one with whom I am familiar. I find her depressing. She does not look up at me nor smile in recognition. 

I look around, wondering what has happened to me, the person I have known for almost a hundred years. She was someone I had recently learned to appreciate after being highly critical of her for many decades earlier. I have lost her.

I fear I am no longer here and instead in my place is a bent over old woman shuffling down the halls of this retirement home. This woman is unsure on her legs, looking for a place to hold on to so as not to fall. Independent retirement living assumes the residents to be independent, not needing physical nor emotional help.

I don’t recognize her.

There is an absurdity in such an assumption since I know we are all dependent on support and loving kindness in order to function at our minimal best. But I am now looking for the woman who came to live here four years ago and who has been lost. The woman I remember was alert, walked with confidence, asked pertinent questions concerning the residence, talked money and judged the offerings in relation to the costs.

 I remember her well because she was who I was.

The old and shrunk woman ahead of me is no one with whom I am familiar. I find her depressing. She does not look up at me nor smile in recognition. 

I think of once upon a time when I made my four-mile daily walk from the South End to Harvard Square to get to my office with just enough time to leave my house and change my thoughts so as to be ready for the day’s challenges. Or perhaps it was a walk along the Loire in the summertime, or around the reservoir in the Fall and in the Spring. My step was brisk and controlled, my view was broad –I loved the distant horizon just as I liked to look at the people or the shop windows.  I was alert and took in everything.

The old lady in the halls whom I keep seeing, doesn’t looked up, never smiles, was not looking at anything further than her feet and her feet seemed to hurt.

And yet I saw a kinship: her attire was reminiscent of mine at the time – long ago, when she (or was it I) was living away from here. I had always been a careful dresser. I liked things to match.  I liked shopping, spent a good bit of time looking in the mirror, went to the same hairdresser every month.  Enjoyed my efforts and never gave up the search for improvement.

Are we one and the same? It can’t be.  Too much is lost. This struggling woman is supposed to be “I” at a younger time?  But I am still I. I remember me, my life in all of its long existence from German infant, through the years of immigration, emigration, more immigration, schools and colleges, marriages and motherhood, different houses and countries to finally, the last move here to this retirement residence.

It all makes sense, is coherent, I can put it together without gaps. But when I see the old lady who is in no way competent, who is reduced to tears at the smallest reference to losses, who struggles to get out of a chair, can’t hear the voices at the other end of the telephone and, perhaps most telling of all, is content with third-rate food, and eats without routine or pleasure, that is when I have great difficulty putting those two women into one set of clothes and seeing myself as that one.

As I follow her along the fourth floor, the mystery is resolved. She walks into my apartment. We become one. She is what I have become, but I have not reconciled the two versions of myself. I see myself as I was once upon a time. aI watch the kindness in the eyes of others as they hold out a hand to keep me upright. They hold the car door open for me to make the giant effort required to sit down with a big lurch to the left and fall onto my seat.

How to reconcile the two versions? For others I am what they see.  For me, I am what I was.

I am lost in an illusion, still surprised by the wrinkles in the mirror of a woman four inches shorter than I was once upon a time.

Renée Levine is 95 and on lock down at the Crossings, the senior community she lives in. She has offered to write letters about her thoughts and the reality of this experience. If you have a message you would like to send her, please either email me at or leave a comment below and I’ll be sure she receives it.