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The Bingo Cookie Club

By Edith Monk Hallberg
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 08:46:00 AM

Life changed forever for my family just after Christmas 2005. It was discovered in the next few months that both my then 89-year-old father and his house were deathly ill. The house that my family had lived in since 1959 was filled with mold in hard-to-clean places, and my father was having chronic breathing problems in addition to his asthma and COPD from smoking cigarettes, though he’d stopped decades before.  

As the New Year 2006 started its first months, my father was in and out of the hospital and also lived with my daughter, Helen, while we searched for a permanent place for him, somewhere he would feel free but where there was some care and assistance for his everyday needs.  

  We found Summerville (now Emeritus) at Creekside in San Pablo. There are about 120 residents there, and a good number of staff who are caregivers, a van driver, a registered nurse, kitchen staff, clerical staff, a program director, and, thank heavens, a social or recreation director named Pearl, who is indeed a gem. 

The monthly charge, which includes meals, housekeeping and laundry, is quite expensive but not as high as similar places in Oakland and Berkeley. Personal assistance and levels of care are also provided and include management of medications as well as assistance in hygiene. These are all unionized workers, I must add. 

My father had a bit of adjusting to do. He gave up a lot of independence, and he had to meet new friends and learn how to be taken care of without being bossy and demanding. He’d been used to either bossing family around or doing things his own way, by himself. My daughter and middle sister had to tell him off a couple of times, while I managed to reason with him, and within six months my two sisters had made his room comfortable, sold his house and set up my daughter and her husband with power of attorney over the proceeds. My sisters then went off to their retirement in Texas, from where we converse weekly. 

And this is really where my story should start, for it is in the sharing of the story that lessons are learned. You see, we don’t usually see older people past the time that we know them as those people integrated amongst us, as politicians, doctors, teachers, and workers of all sorts.  

Once we don’t see them at the senior centers we tend to forget about them, and make jokes about forgetfulness, ailments or prune juice. Sometimes we forget about older people until we are invited to a memorial. 

Back at Creekside, my father made a few friends, read a lot of books in the library on the second floor, participated in the morning sit-and-be-fit exercises and cracked jokes with everyone. He drove his car until a year and a half ago. Despite some short-term memory loss and some recurring ailments, he has done well there. My daughter and I have shared visiting, hosting him at our homes, and medical appointments. I was ill for a couple of months last year, so Helen and I have reversed the medical appointment roles and the visiting, or socialization roles. It is now easier for my daughter to make appointments and to transport him while her son is in preschool, while I play cards and bingo with him on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as host him on Thursdays. 

Bingo is a simple numbers game. There are 15 possible numbers under each letter, for a total of 75, but I would guess that at most 45 numbers are called in a game. There are 24 possible bingo patterns ranging from letters like H, M, W, L, and S, to shapes like frames, bowties, six packs or kites. It’s played many different ways and in different places. At Creekside, the old-fashioned cardboard boards with the red plastic slides are used. About a dozen people buy 1 to 4 cards for $1.20 apiece, and these are played for 10 games.  

Pearl is usually the caller and has challenged people to sit beside her. She also provides water, cups, napkins, and sometimes a treat. Joe pours the water; I pass it down the row of tables; Pearl calls the middle number in the Free space and gives the lucky holder a free card for one game; we start. 

When I discovered that my father was interested in playing Bingo and would play with group whether I was there or not, I made every effort to join him. I would often bring the dimes for both of us and would give him my winnings until I started winning amounts over the change that I’d saved up. 

I often brought my lunch and a treat for my father and me to share. We are both diabetic and I’d learned where to find low-sugar treats. Well, if I brought a whole package of cookies, my father and I would either eat too many or I’d end up with stale and crumbly leftovers. I wanted him to associate my visits with something sweet, and now he expected it. And then I noticed a few envious and even hungry looks. Therefore, over the past year or so I have brought a package of cookies every time that I play Bingo. I vary them every other time, and call them the “cookies du jour” as I open them up. They vary from Almondette to Windmill, and I get them at the 99 Cent Store. (I used to buy Anna’s from Andronico’s or Walgreens, until the prices went up.) 

While bingo is being set up and we are having the “cookies du jour,” I’ve learned about the histories, families, and personalities of other residents. Most of the players are ladies, two of whom have been Berkeley teachers. Oh, they do gossip and tease each other. I share tales of my travels with them and news of what’s happening in Berkeley and other places where my friends are. They hang on every word, and when I’ve been gone more than a week, they ask me what happened or how the trip went. They often try to stuff bills in my hand to contribute for the cookies. I refused—until one day I had brought my last pack of cookies from home, and I accepted.  

“We really appreciate you bringing the cookies,” the woman said as she stuffed $2 into my hand. “We can’t go out on our own to get them.”  

It is a joy to be able to share with them also, as I eat lunch with my father, share a travel video, play cards, or sometimes just hang out and see the decorations that Pearl has put up. The banter that goes on during the Bingo games isn’t very lively; sometimes it is wry or sweet if not funny.  

One woman told her friend, “You need to play the pattern this way.”  

“I’ll play this game any damned way I feel like,” she sniffed.  

“Yeah, she’s a former Berkeley teacher” I added, knowing both women were. 

“Go figure” was the retort. Or another said, “It’s hard getting old, but it sure beats the alternative!” 

And the Bingo Cookie Club continues.