Here is what’s happening with some of my friends—my friends who are over 80 (how can that be possible…people of that age used to be my grandmother’s friends, old ladies who walked slowly along Avenue O in Brooklyn, stopping to sit on the bench in front of our house and talk to my grandmother). Many of my friends are now over 80 and they have no benches in front of their houses. In fact, there’s a powerful message going around that their houses are liabilities—soon my friends will be too old to care for them, even to live in them, cook in them, and enjoy the accumulations of fifty years of stuff in these houses. The message has a subtext: soon you will may be helpless. You have made decisions all your life but eventually you may be too feeble to make decisions and carry them out.
The second sub-text is: don’t leave a pile of grief for your children. When you are too old to manage matters on your own, your kids will then be responsible for getting you into some place where there will be helpful aides, and institutional food, and assurances of safety. They will be the ones who have to get rid of all the old furniture, and the knick-knacks you’ve accumulated, they’ll have to clean out the garage and the attic and throw out all the margarine containers you’ve saved, not to mention precious souvenirs from trips you made (like your plastic leaning Tower of Pisa, for example, or a piece of coral you found on the beach that looks like the “Elephant Man” with his one eye visible).
Third sub-text: where are your kids, anyway? They’ve moved away! You took good care of them, you loved them, you got them educated, they grew up, and they found jobs across the country somewhere. Do you even know your grandchildren? Well, they see you on Skype a few times a year and thank you for the presents you send them. Mainly, you have no kids nearby to help you out. (Maybe you helped out your old parents, maybe one or another of them even lived with you till they died. That’s not happening anymore.)
But the modern world now has an answer for you. These are the new campuses for the old! Just as you did in college, you can take classes there. Never mind Bingo—you can now study existential philosophy with a visiting professor. You can have your own private trainer in a workout center where you live. There’s a spa for massages, a beauty shop for manicures and haircuts, a library for study, a theater for movies and live concerts, a heated pool and spa for low-impact exercise.
These homes away from home have thought of everything. An alarm button in every room in case you feel ill or fall. Free house- keeping services and free trips to your various and frequent doctor appointments (within a certain few miles of your new home).
There’s just one major thing most of you will have to do: sell your house and give these institutions the money. There are various plans, but they all require a look at your financial information and your medical information—and they all charge alarmingly high monthly fees (now that most of you have paid off your houses, and have no rent to pay).
Is it a good deal? Most of these places promise to keep you till the very end—moving you (after you move in in relatively good health) to “levels” of assisted living that help with the tasks of dressing and feeding and transferring, to “memory gardens” (when you can no longer think for yourself), and to skilled nursing care when you require more constant monitoring.
Homes like these are arising all over the country as a service to the “baby boomers”—those who came of age in the sixties and are now reaching the age where help is needed or soon will be.
My husband and I have visited some of these elegant places; they offer tours, they offer free lunches, they can direct you to those who conduct estate sales, those who help with “gentle transitions” and all manner of reassurance that it can be done, that it is a wise choice, you will never regret it, and you will never again have to call a roofer or a plumber of an electrician.
When we get home from such a visit, we look upon our messy kitchen almost with ecstasy, we walk in the weedy springtime yard with joy, we note the peeling paint near the bathroom tub, we rejoice in that fact that we still see (maybe not so well), still hear, still walk, and can still make our own toast every morning. Maybe we can’t do the ultimate calculation now! Maybe we simply refuse to do it at this moment. Maybe it will never happen to us at all—growing old and helpless.
Why not decide to merely be here now, as we always have been, to live as we always have lived, to manage as long as we can…and wait for further news from existence?