Guest Opinion: Senior unassisted living: home maintenance and the compost bin | News | Palo Alto Online |


Guest Opinion: Senior unassisted living: home maintenance and the compost bin


My son has just threatened to write my unflattering obit -- Death by Compost Bin -- because such a disaster almost came true. In our enlightened Palo Alto community, taking out the garbage/recycling/compost has become more complicated than dealing with the IRS, with a lot more moving parts.

Chez-moi, the black bin is for the-less-the-better garbage; blue holds paper, wine bottles (oops, I mean glass), and plastic-stamped-with-a-numbered-triangle-but-absolutely-no-Styrofoam; and the good-earth-y, green cart packs dead leaves, dropped branches, dried plants, all to be composted and reused to ... Save Our City.

However, Our City has leap-frogged over the entire country to ... Save Our Planet. Palo Altans succumb to the theory that China, India and the rest of the smoggy, smelly, wasteful world will soon follow our lead.

In order to Save Our Planet, the green cart must now also hold comestible compost-ables -- all those yucky, squishy, scummy food scraps that in the bad old days one either stuffed in the disposal, tossed to the dog or, "for shame," threw in the garbage. No more!

Those waxy milk cartons -- no longer taboo (green!). But what about truly tricky trash, like soiled paper plates (green?) or slightly used napkins (blue?)? And in a drought, should I wash the plastic mayonnaise jar and toss it (blue?) or since it's sort of food, keep it green?

"It's not the work that takes time; it's the decisions," my husband always said.

"Are you crazy, mother?" my son shouts. "Do you really think your two banana peels, a few chicken bones and some radish leaves will actually make any difference? I thought you just got rid of the ants?"

"I have my own system," I counter. "The garbage company's purse-size container breeds enough fruit flies for major sex experiments, so never take anything from the top shelf of the freezer; it's all garbage."

Last week, after a late book club meeting, I wrestled the giant, open compost container (green) to the curb. Brimming with rotting leaves and frozen food scraps, its wheels suddenly stuck in the bark-covered, drought-tolerant landscape and stopped dead. I, however, plunged on, a head-first dive across the bin -- and driveway -- in the dark.

My twisted body wound up splayed atop the container like road kill, my forehead smashed against the thick plastic rim and my shins sliced by the knife-sharp edge of the hanging cover. Dazed, I peeled myself off the can and struggled to my knees, giving thanks that nothing spilled very far (melting food mush) or broke (my aging bones). Two days later I learned that a big lump on my forehead and "shiners" are a sign of healing.

So this new mantra of "Let's keep seniors in their own homes!" may just turn out to be a disguised end run around the assisted suicide movement -- or, Death with Indignity. Staying put may prove so dangerous to our health that trimming Medicare costs will be achieved via the pitfalls and pratfalls of the "at home" elderly. We'll be thinned out in droves.

Let me count the ways.

You know those dandy little mandated-by-code smoke detectors to keep us old fuds from going up in flames? One woke me up chirping like a hidden cache of crickets, the incessant low-battery warning especially elusive at 3 a.m. There'd be no relief without an 8-foot ladder that lived in the garage behind the rusting lawnmower and spider webbed-tools.

Steering the ladder lengthwise between my car and a wall of gorilla shelves, I "keyed" a 10-foot scrape on my Toyota's driver's side that resembled a racing stripe if you squinted, and rounding the door, I knocked off a corner tile from my newly remodeled kitchen. Slithering up each rickety rung, I frenetically waved my hand toward the plastic ceiling case that remained a fingernail's length out of reach. I froze. Better that I inched down, blasted my son's old Stones' CDs and poured a stiff drink. The next day I cornered some handy friend to help in exchange for babysitting his 2-year-old twins.

Fortunately, a returning wasps' nest tucked under the eaves required only a step stool for me to eyeball their papery home. I waited for dusk when (I hoped) the insects had retired after a day of terrifying my grandchildren. I gulped a deep breath and sprayed a lethal cloud to wipe out an entire colony of God's creatures while decimating the food chain and destroying the environment for the next generation.

I never told my kids how close they came to receiving an early inheritance as I survived another week of home maintenance and escaped Last Rites from Raid.

Of course, there's always a chance of tripping over the tree roots recently unearthed in my lawn-gone landscape, slipping on the unpadded Oriental rugs to better let the radiant heat through, or colliding with the double-paned sliding glass door rushing for a robo-call. There's certainly the omnipresent fear of further battering by one of the lurking bins.

Talk about living -- or dying -- on the edge, I've got it all: hard plastic, decorative wood, sheer glass and shiny stainless steel.

I try to look on the bright side. None of that same old banal slipping in the bathtub for this aging homeowner. I hope my demise will exhibit some dramatic flair, perhaps snagged by a garden hose snaked around my ankle as I crash unconscious on the pool coping and, Ophelia-like, gracefully drown. I've always enjoyed the out-of-doors, and my children will thank me for a quick exit. Then, as my son suggested, they can just scoop my body right into the compost bin (green or blue), all ready to recycle.

Evelyn Preston is a former Palo Alto teacher and a 25-year investment adviser who now writes.

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11 people like this
Posted by older foggie
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 8, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Great column about graceful aging in real life--how do you change the lightbulbs in Eichler round but too near the ceiling fixtures? We cant pull out the dryer to vacuum the vent hose.
Did you want those potato peels underneath or on top of the recycle body?

18 people like this
Posted by Four categories of trash
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 8, 2016 at 2:49 pm

Beautiful writing! You covered so much, please continue to write.

I used the new little recycle pail in my kitchen for 2 weeks then gave up. In my small household, sorting trash into FOUR categories seemed ludicrous, not to mention time consuming. decisions, decisions. Now the useless little bin takes up valuable floor space, what a waste of a lot of money.
Who got rich on that green adventure?

14 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 8, 2016 at 5:51 pm

I think all of us regardless of age, can identify with this.

6 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 9, 2016 at 3:42 am

Look around the world, you should be happy to have such problems,
and I reckon if you devoted as much time to figuring them out as you
did to this entertaining, clearly well conceived, written and proof-read
story you posted, you will live a long life!

PS. In the green bin. ;-)

14 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 9, 2016 at 1:23 pm

I actually lowered my waffle-loaded fork to laugh out loud as I read this in the middle of a restaurant this morning. Loved it. I gave up on the "purse-sized" option and purchased a larger container. When I am vigilant, I am always surprised at just how little "landfill" garbage I take out of my home - and ashamed at how much food is bought and uneaten - but the vigilance has it's frustrating, and thanks to this author, hilarious moments. It's nice to know that I'm not the only one! This was a great read, thank you for writing it!

4 people like this
Posted by pamom
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 9, 2016 at 3:27 pm

Evelyn, I so enjoyed this piece! Hilarious! And I'm sympathetic too. I try to compost what I can but balk at meat/fish left overs but generally there isn't much of that. I'm all for saving the planet and try to do my share, but the zero, yes zero, waste seems a bit much.

11 people like this
Posted by Cassie
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 9, 2016 at 9:35 pm

What a great read! I hope you write more! I enjoyed your piece. It gave my day a lift!

8 people like this
Posted by LOL'd
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 10, 2016 at 10:00 am

Very funny piece.

To "resident" above: three things cured me of food waste. One, I became a gardener. Even though I can't really garden now, the act of growing things was such a tangible wake up call to how much resource goes into making that food. Two, I went entirely organic. When you spend $3 on a piece of fruit, you learn to make plans for consuming it. No, I don't mean meal plans, just having a sense of how long things keep and keeping an eye on things. We don't overbuy and rarely throw anything out. (In our house, the freezer is our friend to avoid food waste. If a banana gets too ripe, it goes right into the freezer peel and all - but not for compost, for future banana bread.) Three: in part because of the previous points, I became a foodie. When we buy food, it is with the anticipation of enjoying it in mind, so nothing gets snubbed. (Those reusable crinkly green bags that help keep things from ripening have also been a help!)

To the author: Your piece also brought up some practical but serious issues. We talk about senior housing here in the abstract but don't talk about creative solutions from the standpoint of needs. What if you could bring a family in to live with you, through an agency that thoroughly checks them out, who in exchange for reduced rent will help you out? What if the match had to be renewed, so that each side had to agree to continue (the agency took care of ensuring a hapoy match)? This piece also highlights that when we have an opportunity to build senior housing, there must be an age-in-place assisted living provision, because moving the frail elderly can be very hard on them health wise.

6 people like this
Posted by Senior Senior
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 11, 2016 at 11:18 am

This is a precious piece of writing ... lots of laughs and lots of truths!! I hope you keep on writing for us.

9 people like this
Posted by sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 11, 2016 at 11:26 am

I wonder whether some of those who complain about the recycling bins in front of my house several days before pick up would care to come by and bring them to the curb each week?
Perhaps the collection people could learn to collect the bins from in front of the garage (near the house) instead of insisting they be out to the street.
This is one of the most difficult things for older women to do. I like living in my own home, but the bins are a chore when full. For this reason they sit at the street from Friday when I have help until Wednesday morning before I'm out and about.
This could be a great Scout project. I'm equal opportunity here--Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts.

8 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 11, 2016 at 11:26 am

Great article and how true.
I'm trying hard to figure out where everything goes, and when I finally got to almost zero waste I figured I could share a black bin with my mom. I called green waste to cancel my black bin and was told it was mandatory in Palo Alto to pay for garbage whether or not you use it. So now, if I have a question as to where something goes, it goes in the garbage that I am forced to pay for.

7 people like this
Posted by JM Neighborly Non Resident
a resident of Los Altos
on Apr 11, 2016 at 11:47 am

This is a beautifully written and conceived piece, and caused a well deserved smile from a fellow "Senior Citizen" (Now Isn't that an awful contemporary label in itself?) living by choice with her husband in their own home.

My first reaction is to be thankful that we aren't beholden to the "Oh so Palo Alto" re-cycling program! Much as I love many of the "graces" of Palo Alto, it's often overzealous affectations make me grateful not to be caught up in such well meaning but often intransigent edicts! "Life's too short" as the saying goes, and especially at our ages!!!
Good Luck!

9 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2016 at 12:14 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Thanks Evelyn,

I can't stop laughing. You've tackled this subject head on with humor. I hope the greenest of the green don't send you hate mail. You spoke courageously when I was afraid to. The Mercury News had an article on this subject a few weeks ago and they had their own version of what to do with items, the sorting of things, what goes in which bin, etc. And it differed in some ways with what our green bucket brigade folks here in PA are saying. I used my green bucket faithfully for a few months but have since given it up. I wouldn't produce enough kitchen scraps and spoiled throwaway food in a couple hundred years to amount to a pile bigger than a pitcher's mound. I think I do a good job of throwing things properly into the 'green' and 'blue' bins and now I'm going back to my pre-green bucket ways and things that are supposed to go in it are now going back into the 'black' bin just like they did before.

6 people like this
Posted by Cid Young
a resident of another community
on Apr 11, 2016 at 12:19 pm

Living in Moss Beach, I have two voracious goats (Sonny & Annabelle) who would be so saddened if my yard waste or my potato peels were to go out on the curb instead of in their tummies. They are herbivores so the tiny raisionettes they poop out don't need to be picked up in baggie, like dog poo, but can go right into my compost pile in their yard. The really gushy veggies-gone-bad that I sometimes discover in the back of the fridge go in my worm bin and later the worm castings can be used to fertilize the garden.

Here too, we also MUST pay for trash removal, and my smallst grey can is rarely 1/4 full on Tuesday mornings. I don't qualify for the Senior Citizen rate because RECOLOGY took it away and decided to link that with the PG&E CARE low-income program, and inspite of my age, I must pay the regular rate. The huge Recycle Blue Bin, normally had some paper and a few Pelegrino bottles in it, so it is not too full to drag, but I have a gravel driveway.
Then after my husband left me, I struggled but finally rented out a room to a young twenty-something couple. They are very nice, but still they "forget" sometimes to drag out the now much fuler bins to the curbside. More beer bottles and un-rinsed cans from repeated chilli making. They are twenty, so I don't say much, not wanting to become the "Mommy". I too, was forgetful when I was twenty. I know in a pinch if I awoke and heard the smoke detector going off at 3 AM that they might help me shut it off. Or at least drag in the ladder for me.

I love your writing and think you should send it to the New Yorker.

5 people like this
Posted by Richard Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 11, 2016 at 12:42 pm

Try this out: Use green compostable plastic bags (from Costco) made to fit the little green pail the city gave us a while back for food and similar scraps. Fitted into the pail, it creates a bit of a seal when the lid is closed tightly. No smell, no insects attracted. Then order the smallest green compost cart from GreenWaste - no charge - it is about four feet tall. Place the now enclosed and twisted closed food scrap bags into the small green cart. This comes with a good fitting lid. That is all that does into the cart. We put three bags a week into it. And it is an easy wheel to the curb, even when I'm using my cane. The only thing we put into the large yard trimming cart is yard trimmings. We have no rodent problems, no smelly messes and no insects. About the only thing that goes into the equally small black garbage cart is the cat litter also in compostable bags and very little else. Zero waste really works if you work with instead of against the system. Done on national or global basis, we could go a long way to saving the planet. Full disclosure, I'm 83 and walk with a cane. My wife is 81. Taking care of the trash is the very least of our problems.

5 people like this
Posted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2016 at 12:47 pm

This made me laugh -- but also cry a little. It reminded me too much of dear friend and Palo Alto stalwart John Tuomy who died as a not-too-senior citizen from falling off a ladder trying to reach his 8 ft high eaves. So, be careful everyone!

2 people like this
Posted by Just don''t get it
a resident of Southgate
on Apr 11, 2016 at 1:24 pm

LOL,,,,,,loved the story and certainly sympathize with you. That said, I've watched our trash collectors for several weeks and when they pick up the gray (trash) container and the blue recycle container are emptied at the same time into the same why bother??

2 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2016 at 1:43 pm

Thanks for the insightful article. My large compost bins have so far resulted in a broken toe (one of them rolled over my toes) and eight stitches at Stanford emergency when a bin fell over and cut my head: that plastic is tough and sharp. Take care and keep writing. annev

2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 11, 2016 at 3:18 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

To mutti,

I knew John Toume very well also. He taught my twin sons at Palo Verde middle school in the 70's. Then he was on the school board and I used to see him at Sophia's coffee shop that is now Peets at Charleston Center. We had good visits. I also had a neighbor who fell off a ladder, hit his head on a planter box, and died.

I've stayed off the top rung of 6 ft ladders ever since.

Like this comment
Posted by Alison W -another oldster
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 12, 2016 at 8:01 am

A lovely so true breakfast laugh, - I made my son take away my ladder - thanks!

Like this comment
Posted by rebugging
a resident of Los Altos
on Apr 12, 2016 at 11:22 am

Loved this piece which highlights the plight of "older" citizens. My week moves in tune to the garbage/waste/recycle problem. My "Monday helper" fills and takes the cans to the curb. (In Los Altos the size of the black bin determines the bill). I have the smallest size allowed, and it is often almost empty though I have used it to throw away strange items & Styrofoam packing to help my offspring when my inevitable day comes. On Tuesday, my weekly weeder/planter gardener puts the now-empty cans back in the side yard. My biweekly stronger/taller gardener grinds all prunings and puts them in my compost bins, so the green bin only receives noxious weeds and dirty cardboard. Daily, I place all vegetable scraps into the compost bins. You get the picture.

2 people like this
Posted by Symathetic
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2016 at 4:18 pm

Thank you. This made my day.

2 people like this
Posted by Jenny
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 27, 2017 at 11:37 am

Wonderful article!!Please keep writing it and giving us these information.

2 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 27, 2017 at 11:56 am

Fantastic piece! Thanks so much.

Re making one's day, don't forget the near misses with drivers making their own lanes coming directly at you while you're wheeling your bins into the street. Fun for all ages.

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