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When I was a teenager, my church youth group made an annual Christmas pilgrimage to what people then called the "old folks' home." We took small wrapped gifts, perhaps a comb and bottle of after-shave for men, handkerchiefs, and hand cream for women. Our youth leader did all the cheery talking. We only had to sing and grin. The more virtuous or socially skilled among us might shake a few claw-like hands or pat several bony shoulders. The rest of us just sang carols, crowding around the bedside of strangers while exchanging sidelong glances to let one another know we understood this wasn't real, that we had no personal connection to all this creepy weirdness. As soon as we could, we escaped into the cold night air outside, our pent breath exploding in blasts of laughter.

I was not one of the better people. I dreaded these nursing-home excursions, and not merely because of the sensory and metaphysical assaults aging flesh inflicts on the young. Even at 15, I knew that we were putting on an act, performing—in all the variations of that word's meaning—our Christian duty.

For the most part, we had no idea who these deplorable figures were in their wheelchairs and sickbeds. We weren't even curious. The season demanded charity the way it demanded colored lights, and we provided it—or at least its ceremony. We sang at the nursing homes to warm ourselves with the glow of our own virtue in the same way we Texans use angel hair and tinsel icicles to work up a fake nostalgia for snowy winter landscapes.

As an adult, I made a few visits to elderly relatives or friends in nursing homes, but my next significant exposure came in Wyoming 22 years later. We had just moved to a new town and, having a lot of free time on my hands, I decided to ...

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November 13, 2000

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