That is Not for Me

Story by: Floor Flurij & Dorian Block

Photography by: Floor Flurij

Aurea Texidor is 86 years old.

 

She lives in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Inwood, at the very top of Manhattan. Thirty-three years ago, Aurea moved from the Lower East Side into this apartment to help her daughter Noemi raise her granddaughters. Nowadays, her granddaughters have active lives and apartments of their own and Noemi works fulltime. Their once busy and lively three-generation household has become quieter.

 

Aurea has found a daily rhythm that keeps her occupied, engaged and happy. Her life revolves largely around a local senior center, which serves as a free meeting place, a community center, a gym, a breakfast and lunch table, a gossip-center and sometimes dance club for the dozens of older people who live in the neighborhood and come regularly. Aurea serves as the treasurer of the R.A.I.N. Inwood Neighborhood Senior Center Council and knows everyone.

 

6:30 a.m.

 

Aurea’s internal clock wakes her up every day, at the same time, often with the sun.

 

“On a normal day, I take my morning shower, I get dressed and get to the senior center,” she says.

 

Aurea often puts on a hat handmade and gifted to her by one of her friends and wears a collection of bracelets, also made at the center.

 

Before she heads down the four flights of stairs of her building, she has a cup of coffee (black, no sugar, no milk) and a glass of juice. This is the same every weekday.

8:15 a.m.

 

A small bus run by the senior center stops in front of the door of her building. The driver opens the sliding door of the van and puts down a single step to make it easier to get on to the bus.

 

Aurea used to walk the three blocks to the center, but since she fell four years ago, she prefers to take the one dollar bus trip.

 

The bus also picks up Nery and Palmira, two of her many friends.

 

Recently, when the driver got sick, Aurea walked to the center for a few days in a row. Since everyone knows the driver well, a “get well” card was written and passed around for everyone to sign.

 

Aurea was sincerely hoping for him to get well soon, because the walking made her more tired than she likes and some of her friends couldn’t get to the center.

 

8:30 a.m.

 

Aurea pushes open the heavy door of the New Mount Washington Presbyterian Church building on Vermilyea Avenue. She climbs up the stairs, and walks through the long hallway to the back, where the RAIN Senior Center is housed.

 

All people over age 60 from the neighborhood are welcome at the center, and when people have health problems, they are welcome to attend five years earlier.

 

After Aurea’s retirement in 1994, her daughter suggested that she should go there, but Aurea refused:

 

“I am not going no place! That is not for me!” she remembers saying. They fought over it.

 

One day, some twenty years ago, during a walk through her neighborhood on a Friday afternoon (party day at the center), Aurea passed by. She saw many people going in, and she decided to look in, “just for fun.”

 

 “I stayed for the party, and I have been coming over here ever since,” she says.

 

The first thing Aurea does when she arrives at the center in the morning is: “Nothing!” a proclamation she makes with a big playful smile on her face, delighting that her years of hard work are over.

 

“I just come inside and pay for my breakfast, and then I sit down and wait for it”. Everybody eats the same meal for breakfast. Some days, there are scrambled eggs and bread. Other days, there is oatmeal with fruit.

 

In the common room of the senior center, where all activities take place, Aurea has a regular spot where she likes to sit, also the first seat she ever sat in when she came to the center. Nevertheless, she is easy going, and on the rare occasion someone is sitting in her seat, she moves somewhere else.

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9:30 a.m.

 

The center has an exercise program on all mornings of the week except Mondays, taught by visiting instructors. On Tuesdays, there is aerobics. On Wednesday there is Zumba, which Aurea finds the most challenging (“She is something!” Aurea says of the teacher). On Thursday, there is line dancing and on Friday there is yoga. Aurea participates in everything and she likes to keep the pace going.

 

During yoga one Friday morning, whenever it takes a while for the teacher to explain something, she quietly says: “okay, let’s go on”.

 

10:15 a.m.

 

In between activities, some of the women play cards. On another day they color in adult coloring books. Aurea doesn’t, but does important work instead – gossiping.

 

Aurea has many friends. “Everybody is my friend. I get along with everyone. They love me. Maybe only one or two don’t like me so much.” She says.  

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10:45 a.m.

 

On one day, someone from the fire department comes to give a lesson on fire safety for seniors. The firefighter gives the instructional handouts in both English and Spanish. He tries to speak both languages, but that results in a bit of a clumsy display, mixing both languages and leading Wanda, the Center's activity coordinator, to translate. Advice includes: when you are cooking, always set a timer (“In case you fall asleep while watching the novelas”), put on an apron, so you will remember that you are in cooking mode (“If you are walking through your neighborhood, someone will ask you: What are you cooking?”), and the advice Aurea seemed to agree with the most: “Know your home address, including the neighborhood and cross street, in English.”

 

Aurea, always the model audience member, nods and hums in agreement, and says things like “hmmm that’s right” and “everything is clear” even though some others are playing cards or not paying attention. After the lecture, the fireman hands out oven mitts, which Aurea takes gratefully to add to her collection at home.

 

One other day, paper and color pencils are distributed over the tables for an art exercise, instructed by two volunteers. The exercise is to recreate a painting made by van Gogh, but add Christmas elements. Some people seem to laugh about it, and others take this exercise seriously. Aurea looks at the painting repeatedly, after which she starts drawing her own picture of a Christmas tree, not in Van Gogh’s style.

 

They whole group starts to laugh after one woman jokes loudly about the disappointing quality of her drawing: “Van Come, Van Gogh.”

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11:30 a.m.

 

Lunch is served at 12. Starting at half past eleven, the ritual of buying a brightly colored ticket, just like at breakfast time, is repeated. Aurea never has to get out of her seat (“They spoil me,” she says.) A friend, Ada, asks Aurea for $1.25 and buys the ticket for her. Then, Theodoro (known as ‘Blanco’), stands in line for Aurea before he gets his own food. And every day, he walks toward Aurea’s table with her lunch tray calling out “Where is Aurea?!,” already knowing where she is.

 

Aurea still laughs as he heads over and puts down her lunch plate for her. With so many people helping each other during lunch, it is hard to tell senior center goers apart from the senior center staff.

 

When she’s done eating, Aurea works the room, listening, talking and putting her hand on almost a dozen people’s shoulders. She seems to know well what is going on in everyone’s lives.

She wishes one friend a happy birthday. And she whispers something in another friend’s ear.

 

Aurea wears a crocheted hat today that her friend Carmen made.

 

“The one I was wearing last week was made by Felicia. I have a collection. They (my friends) treat me well, and I do the same for them. That is how it works.”

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2 p.m.

 

It is bingo time. The room is packed with people sitting at metal folding chairs and tables with boards set in front of them. Margaritha (the secretary of the senior center council) sits behind a digital bingo number generator with neon numbers, calling out numbers rapidly in Spanish. Another one of the senior center goers calls them out in English.

 

Everyone pays 35 cents to play each card (or $1 for 3 cards). Aurea has a highly practiced system, playing four cards at once. She puts two cards flat on the table and two cards up straight leaning against her purse.

 

Except for one woman, who plays just one card, all others, obviously very experienced bingo players, play between four and eight cards at once. Their fingers are constantly moving, sliding plastic windows back and forth as numbers are called.

 

Aurea seems to know her cards by heart. She finds the corresponding numbers quickly, crossing off the new number as soon as it is shown on the sign. She talks to herself, recapitulating the numbers she still needs, pointing to them on her cards.

 

Several bingo rounds follow: participants have to form an H-shape, X-shape, N-shape or square shape. They switch focus to a different form each round, and games succeed each other quickly.

 

Aurea’s friend Ada seems to be the most experienced Bingo player in the room: She plays 6 cards at once while talking to someone on the phone at the same time (“She can do anything,” Aurea says).

 

Although Aurea does not often win anything (prizes are a few dollars for each round's winner), she is excited about the game. After someone cries out bingo, she shows her card to her neighbor.

 

“Just one more number! I only needed an 11!”

3 p.m.

 

When bingo is over, Aurea puts her cards back in her purse and says goodbye to her friends, one by one with hugs and waves. She puts on her coat and heads outside, to wait for the bus to take her home.

 

Aurea spends the late afternoon reading or watching television in the living room or her bedroom, until her daughter comes home from work. “Sometimes I do some crochet or something, but that is difficult now because my neck is a little stiff,” she says. Sometimes, when she is tired from her activities at the center, she takes a nap. “I know we have to age. That’s life. I am taking it easy.”

 

Aurea and her daughter have been able to continue living in their apartment despite rising rents in the neighborhood because of SCRIE, a program that freezes the rent of people over age 62 who make below $50,000 a year and live in rent-stabilized apartments.

 

Aurea hasn’t thought much about what she will do if there comes a time when she can’t make it up and down the four flights of stairs.

 

6 p.m.

 

For dinner Aurea eats yogurt and cereal (“something light”) since she already had a cooked meal for lunch at the center.

 

After dinner, Aurea watches more television. She especially likes the Steve Harvey show, a talk show. When comedian Steve Harvey accidentally presented the wrong Miss Universe winner recently, Aurea and her daughter, who were watching the ceremony, were shocked, but she says they forgave him.

 

When she is not watching television, Aurea likes to do puzzle books. She has a stack supplied by her granddaughters.

 

10:30 p.m.

 

Aurea goes to bed. She has no trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night. Except on the occasional days when there is a family party going on - then she stays up until the end and sleeps in the next day.

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Aurea Texidor was born in 1929 in Puerto Rico.

 

She grew up in a town called Cayey, about a 40 minute drive from San Juan. The character of the area was largely influenced by the presence of Henry Barracks, a U.S. Army Base in the town. Because so many Americans where living in the area, all school books were in English, providing Aurea with a bilingual education.

 

Aurea attended 12 years of school, and one year afterward, studying to become a secretary. She still treasures her diplomas and has them in her apartment.

 

She grew up in a protected and conservative Baptist community, and up until today, she is a member of the Baptist church.

 

At age 20, in 1949, Aurea moved to New York City with her father. She says her father coaxed her into the trip by saying: “Don’t you want to come, just for vacation?” Sixty-four years later, New York is more home to her than Puerto Rico.

 

Five years after moving to New York, when Aurea was 24, she met her husband, Reyis Texidor through the church she attended. They got married and got their own apartment on the Lower East Side. Reyis was a musician.

 

Aurea and Reyis had two children together, a daughter and a son. Aurea worked as an assistant and translator for nurses. Later she worked as an educational assistant for children with special needs at a school. She had a paying job for most of her life, in addition to raising her children and taking care of sick family members. 

 

At age 39, on July 12th 1972, Reyis died of a stroke. He had suffered from damaged heart valves due to rheumatic fever. Aurea says she does not want to paint a better picture of their relationship because he is dead: “He was a lousy husband. He had lots of women, lots of affairs. He was not good for me, but he was a good father. A true provider. He would put money on the table and ask us what we needed. I stayed with him because of the kids.”

 

Aurea took care of her husband until he died, even uprooting her life and that of her kids for two years to live in Puerto Rico, at his request, when he was ill.

 

After he died, Aurea moved back to New York and continued her work. In the 1980s, Aurea’s daughter Noemi became a mother of two and Aurea became a grandmother. Aurea moved in with her daughter in their Inwood apartment to help take care of them. Aurea feels that she has gotten as much (or more) out of this arrangement as her daughter and granddaughters have.

 

She loves her role as a second mom, and she is very proud of them.

 

“My oldest granddaughter Melissa is a manager in construction. She knows everything. They even order doors from Italy. My youngest granddaughter Angela is a psychologist. She buys me word search puzzles to practice my brain. They (her granddaughters) are always asking me what I need.”

 

In 1994, Aurea’s son became a father, to Aurea’s youngest and only grandson, named Reyis, after his father and grandfather. When Aurea’s grandson was only 11, Aurea’s son died suddenly at age 45, following a bacterial infection that spread to his pancreas. Aurea describes his death as the most painful event that has happened in her life. Despite her grief, she says: “I have to keep on going.”

 

Since 1972, Aurea has visited Puerto Rico three times, to visit her cousin and her husband’s family. In 2011, she fell, and she has been less steady and slower ever since. She would like to go back to Puerto Rico another time, but she says her daughter won’t let her go alone and she agrees that she should not travel alone.

 

In 2015, Aurea turned 86 years old. She is at peace and reflecting on her life and future.

 

“I would not have done anything differently. I regret nothing. I do not worry about the future, when I might need more care. I do not even think about that. I will worry about that when it comes. And when I die, I want to be cremated. I don’t need to be buried with my husband in Puerto Rico, I have lived here for the past 64 years. My life is here. This is my life.”

Every last Friday of the month is a celebration at the senior center.

 

There is party to celebrate the birthdays of the people that had their birthday that month and to celebrate holidays and special occasions.

 

In October, the month's party is a Halloween celebration. The senior center is decorated with orange and black paper drapes, plastic spiders, skeletons, skulls and handmade lanterns made from milk containers. The tables are put closer together to make space for a dance floor. In the corner of the room, there is a DJ booth, where two men play merengue and bachata. Handmade cupcakes with Halloween themed frosting are handed out at the beginning of the party, and bags of potato chips, lemonade and soda follow.

 

As a part of the costume contest, those dressed up walk around the room to show off their costumes. This year there is a belly dancer, a zombie and a pumpkin. The winner is decided based on the volume of the cheering and clapping. Aurea chose not to wear a costume.

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The music is very loud, but the people attending the party do not seem to mind. People pull each other out of chairs, pushing each other to enjoy the moment and dance. During a bachata song, one man puts on a show, enthusiastically twisting his hips to the music, while people gather around him clapping. Aurea’s friend Nery typically relies on a walker, but this does not stop her from dancing. She sits on her walker and swings her upper body back and forth, clapping and waving her arms to the rhythm of the music.

 

When the DJ plays a very high-paced merengue song, it does not please the crowd.

 

“We are too old for that music!” Aurea says.

 

When a slower song is played, Aurea gets up, walks to the dance floor and asks her friend Palmira, who is 95, to dance. They step in rhythm to the song. Aurea spins. Aurea and many others sing along to the music. Theodoro (Blanco), always trying to flirt with Aurea, asks her to dance, but she tells him she is tired. Everyone enjoys themselves, dancing or watching others dance.

 

Aurea has always loved music and dancing. Nevertheless, during her childhood, she was not allowed to dance. The community was very conservative. When she got married to Reyis, that changed: “TI became independent!,” she says. Reyis was a musician, and Aurea enjoyed it very much when he had rehearsals at home. They danced at their wedding, and Aurea has enjoyed dancing ever since.

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At 2 p.m., during the Halloween party, it is time to celebrate birthdays. People that have had birthdays in October are called forward to be serenaded. They gather around a large birthday cake. The DJs play a grand version of 'Feliz Cumpleaños / Happy Birthday.' Aurea wipes a tear falling down her face. After the song, everyone mingles to congratulate each other. Senior center staff cut the cake, and hand out slices. Most people put the cake between two paper plates to bring home. The dancing continues for another hour. The Electric Slide reinvigorates the crowd. It is a favorite song from their Thursday morning line dance class. Aurea feels well enough to dance along.

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Aurea had slowed down in September after a stay in the hospital. She was admitted because of confusion, problems walking and dizziness. She does not remember much from her stay in the hospital, but she remembers the important things: “I now have a calendar for my warfarin - every night I have to take one or half. I also have a pill for the water, a thyroid pill in the morning, and at night I take a statin. That is for the cholesterol.”

 

She carries her medicine around neatly organized in a pillbox, and she says she feels better since starting the medication. One other thing she remembers clearly from her hospital stay is visits from her friends from the center: “They have a rule in the hospital, that you cannot visit with more than two people at once. But there was a crowd. And they were all talking and laughing too loud. The doctor had to hush them.”

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Aurea also visits others when they are sick and cannot make it to the center – at their homes and in the hospital, carrying freshly baked goods from the local bakery or something else she picks up. The friendships she has made at the senior center – with people from many different countries - have become her social support system outside of the center as well. Aurea meets her friends on the weekends, at each other’s homes, for coffee at McDonald's and to go shopping.

 

“They miss me when I am not at the center. They ask each other: Where is Aurea?,” she says.

 

After the Halloween party, Aurea waits for the bus to pick her up, while spontaneously singing a song with a friend. They then laugh out loud at their own silliness.

 

“Goodbye mama!” they call as the bus pulls up. Until Monday, and another week begins.

 

Also reported by Othanya Garcia.

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© 2015 by Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health