Last Sunday, a mixed age group of church friends and I are sitting around after service discussing where we and our elderly parents might live as we age.
“Years ago the Cooper family extended across Franklin County,” Mike, a recently retired professor, explains. “Then my mom and dad decide to become missionaries and leave for Kenya. This starts a trend. My wife and I have lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida to follow our work. My kids live in Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and Vietnam pursuing dreams. We are spread across the world.”
“I grew up in Ohio and left for Costa Rica in seventy-seven to join the Peace Corps,” Steve, a middle-aged business owner, adds. “I have no relations or close friends left in Ohio. Most of my friends are here in Sarasota. My kids live in New York and Minnesota. I don’t want to live in either place; I can’t take another snowstorm! My son and daughter don’t want to move down here. Besides, they have kids and lives of their own and can’t pick up and go!”
The rest of us share similar stories.
“It is best to have a power of attorney that lives near you,” Mike’s wife, Melissa, a retired accountant, shares. “Our daughter wants us to come live with them in Pennsylvania. I am not sure if that’s where we belong. Honestly, I don’t know where I belong.”
We grow silent.
Melissa continues, “I believe we are in a dilemma. We have no sense of home. “
Most of us nod in agreement.
I wonder about growing up watching my Aunt Stella care for my maternal grandfather in the Brooklyn brownstone her family lives in and inherits from him. I share about my dad’s mom, Katherine, who lives out her life alone in the Long Island home in which she raised the youngest of her nine kids. As she ages, uncles and cousins visit from around the island, checking in, bringing groceries and paying bills.
I would visit each Friday on my way home from work. During my last visits, as she lay in a hospital bed in her room, cared for by a visiting nurse, she bemoans feeling weak. She can’t get up and make me lentil soup but hopes she can next time. I thank her and smile.
One day, however, I tell her the truth, “Grandma, you are not going to get up and cook for me anymore. It is your turn now to rest and let others care for you.”
Two days later, she passes.
I tell how over the years aunts and uncles from both sides of my family move in with or live in duplexes attached to their children’s Staten Island and Long Island homes and are cared for in turn. Recently, however, my Aunt Trudy is the first to enter and die in a health care facility. Her only son, Cal, fears he can’t give her proper care.
“I want to go home!” Aunt Trudy uncharacteristically yells at Cal each time my cousin enters the room to visit.
After a few months, however, Aunt Trudy can no longer speak to me on the phone. Machines help her breathe and feed her liquids. My mom and dad visit, enter her room and think they are in the wrong place. They don’t recognize her; she is a skeleton. She is barely audible, but surviving, unsettled, until her last breath.
We shift in our seats and dispute the value of extended life support. We share fears of being left alone in a facility to wither.
I tell of my friend Carol misplaced in an Alzheimer’s facility by her son, who lives out of town. After a year-and-a-half, she finally convinces her doctor and him to transfer her to a more suitable assisted living facility. I visit her each month to take her out.
Last week, we face each other across a table. Her hand shakes as she lifts a spoonful of Greek lemon soup to her lips. She falters to find the name of the ailment that leads her to do so, smiling sweetly, assuring me many elderly suffer like this. As we stroll to the car after eating, I notice her gait steadier; physical therapy has helped.
“I don’t like living this way,” she murmurs from the passenger seat as we return to the facility. “I told my son I want to live in an apartment and he grew silent. I hung up on him.”
Melissa informs us, “They say you need to save up $350 thousand per person for three years of end of life care.”
The group gasps and groans.
“How have folks done it before?” I ask and then answer my question. “People took care of their own.”
“Most of the expenses are during the last three years of life,” Linda, a middle-aged home care nurse, explains. “Before that it is mostly bathing, dressing, feeding, and so on. This takes a big commitment from somebody. It is hard work that’s tiring!”
“Who’s going to do that these days?” Paula, architect and writer, responds. “Women have jobs outside the home and want to keep them!”
“My grandparents had five kids who took turns taking care of them,” Pete, a retired construction worker adds.
“We didn’t have enough kids,” Melissa and Mike turn to each other and laugh!
“I have a dream,” elder member John states. ”I imagine a community with houses on a shared property with a common gathering space and community gardens. I check the papers daily. Last week, I looked at 20 acres in Arcadia.”
“Yes,” I chime in. “People of all ages, elderly, middle age and youngsters, living together, with elders contributing as they can — their experience and abilities valued. I heard of someone traveling the world to study communities where folks live the longest. In these places, people don’t retire or stop meaningful work. They’re part of a community, contributing in ways they can. This is more life-giving than institutional health care. “
“My mom loved living in an assisted living facility,” Paula adds. “For the first time in her life, she didn’t have to shop, cook or clean. She was in heaven! And thank God. I had three kids to raise and responsibilities at work. I didn’t have energy to make sure she took her pills or time to drive her to doctors. Besides, we tried living in community in the seventies. It didn’t work. There were too many personalities. For example, we shared a car and a lawn mower. The car was supposed to be left in our neighbor’s driveway, the lawnmower in our garage. We got home late one night and left the car in our driveway. Big trouble! Plus I am too old for this. It takes a lot of energy!”
John continues, “I have energy for this!”
“Me too,” I add. “Friends and I have been talking about forming a multi-generational, cooperative household whose property can be passed on in posterity to its members. Years ago, folks handed down homes and land, keeping them in the family. Nowadays, we work hard to build something only to dissemble it before we die. We need something lasting in which put our energy. We need a new possibility.”
“The younger generation is living communally,” Steve adds. “My nephew, Joe, just graduated from college. He and his friends share a house partly because they can’t afford their own places but mainly they don’t want to live alone taking care of their own stuff. They share vehicles and take turns cooking, shopping, and gardening. They have time to hang out and do what matters to them! Joe works part time then makes performance art with his buddies on issues like racial injustice. ”
“Neat!” John responds. “I would love to live around creative souls like this!”
“That’s all well and good,” Paula states, “but young people listen to loud music and stay up all hours. Young kids run around and make noise. I like my fifties and older community. Here they come and go.”
Linda asks, “Can we, as church, simply look out for one another, like family, while our relatives are far away?”
“I like the idea of a duplex,” Pete says, “with someone younger living next door to help out with rides and meals. When I was fresh out of college, not knowing what to do, I moved to Texas to live in a room with my elder aunt and uncle. I mowed the lawn, collected yard waste, and ran errands, whatever they needed. Isn’t there someone who could do this for me?”
We pause and ponder.
“I think we are at a turning point, “I say. “For a few generations now, folks have left family, friends and land loosening bonds to follow an inner call.”
“Jesus said, if someone comes to me but cannot free himself from his father and his mother, from his wife and his children, from brothers and sisters, yes, even from his own soul, he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26-27
“Perhaps we have been on spiritual journeys and now it’s time to come together, in new ways,’ I add, “forming intentional families and communities.”
“Yes,” Linda shares, “Have you heard about Denmark group homes?”
“No,” Steve responds, “but I’ve heard of retired folks downsizing to share a house together, splitting responsibilities and resources.”
“My friend lives in an assisted living coop in Minnesota, near her daughter, and loves it,” Paula says.
“So many options to consider!” Pete concludes.