Mr. Wilson: Tending an Orchard and an Identity

Leo M. Cooney, Jr., M.D.

The peaches arriving at the office were very different from the ones that I was used to. These were fuzzy, white, irregular in shape, bursting with juice, delicious. This special fruit told me that it was harvest time at Mr. Wilson’s orchard, and he was in to see me.

   I had known Mr. Wilson in two different circumstances. Twenty years ago, he brought in his wife to see me. She suffered from a particularly disabling variant of Parkinson’s disease. When she stood up, her blood pressure would drop precipitously, eventually resulting in multiple falls and two fractured hips. 

   When Mrs. Wilson later developed dementia, another complication of her disease, her care became quite difficult. I marveled at Mr. Wilson every time I saw him with his wife. He was incredibly calm, competent, and attentive. He supplied superb care for her in a devoted and selfless manner. He made every effort to provide for her contentment in the face of a devastating illness.

   A few years later, after his wife had died, Mr. Wilson returned with his own problem, a type of arthritis. I now saw him every six months, as he did well with treatment. As the years went by, I looked forward more and more to his visits, and not just for the peaches.

   Mr. Wilson has met the most important challenge of his last years. He has preserved his identity, his sense of self, despite a number of physical and personal changes. He has made the adjustment remarkably well from devoted caregiver of his wife to steward of his garden and orchard.

   Now 92, Mr. Wilson is mentally fit and has a full life. Although generally healthy, he is aware of the limitations that come with age. He has decreased his travel, hiking, and social life a good deal (he visited national parks with his son every two years until age 90). Most days he focuses on his house, his garden, and his orchard. He is satisfied with his day if he can get a bit of work done in his yard. He recognizes the limitations of his back, and has placed chairs strategically throughout his yard so he can sit as needed. He has adjusted his sights remarkably well, and his good nature and chuckles attest to his contentment.

   Mr. Wilson has not let his physical limitations affect his enjoyment of life. A man who was hiking mountains until his late 80s can now walk only a few feet before his back calls for a chair. He still finds the opportunity to trim his wonderful peach trees and tend to his garden. His limited chores bring him as much satisfaction as he previously found in extensive physical activities. Despite going from chair to chair in his garden, he is still who he is. His smile outdoes even his delicious peaches.