Geriatric Homesteading

In its original sense (at least in the US), homesteading referred to staking out a piece of land to work and live on and therefore, after a period of time, take title. In more recent years, we’ve had urban homesteading, where vacant properties are allotted provided the residents inhabit and improve them. The emphasis is on continual residence creating a right of ownership. As I started thinking about elderly people I know, I thought we might be seeing a different kind of homesteading. And I’m not sure whether it was a good or bad thing.

Consider the case of a woman who is in her mid-eighties and lives alone in her house. She has had major and minor accidents, been in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities, but hangs onto her house for dear life. The house was not necessarily designed for the elderly; it is on one floor but the driveway is steep (the cause of one major accident) and the house is not handicapped accessible in all ways. It is also a long distance from the people who most want to support my friend – her children, who travel and take time away from home and work to help out. Right now, my friend has gone home with her daughter for a while after some surgery which she was recovering from slowly. But she’ll be back. My friend is clinging to the house with all she has. What does it represent?

Independence, I suppose. Although the fact that it is in a suburb and requires a car (and that’s another subject) for any kind of shopping, meaning that my friend (who still owns a car, but often cannot drive because of temporary disability) requires assistance. She is lucky; people are willing to help. Her children make great sacrifices to come back and forth, but they too seem willing. This has gone on for about three years now. Why is my friend hanging onto her house with such tenacity?

Perhaps because the alternatives are not attractive: elderly housing, assisted living, nursing homes? They have the aura of the funeral parlor about them. They are not “home.” What is home? Frost said it was the “place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And if it’s your own home you, of course, have control. Loss of control is one of our greatest fears.

We have mythologized the value of home ownership in this country; John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that:

Your homestead’s title gives you all
That idle wealth can buy.

Your home gives you privacy. Sovereignty. But there is no one there in the middle of the night to help the sovereign, and it often takes a consortium of people to keep elderly people in their homes. These are stubborn homesteaders, holding out against the advice of friends, appeals by realtors, and the pleading of over-burdened children.

I don’t have an answer. I have seen enough elderly housing and assisted living centers to understand why they are avoided. One thinks fondly of European granny cottages in a child’s backyard, but this is often neither legal nor practical. I do not have a solution – but we should have one. When the boomers started to reproduce in large numbers, we created suburbs. Now that these boomers are reaching senescence, we need to invent something else. Something as appealing as suburbia was in the 1950’s. Something that works.

Houses are powerful symbols. For Jung, the house (in dreams) represented the personality with its many rooms, its order and disorder. But the house is also representative of the body; “Ain’t goin’ to need this house no longer” says the old Gospel song. In the Bible, we are told that God has many mansions for the blessed, and one of the oldest mnemonic devices was making our mind into a house or palace and storing needed information in the many rooms where it can be retrieved – Napoleon used this method and so did Sherlock Holmes. For many, our original homes take on an Edenic quality – my mother in her dementia and confusion longs for her childhood home.

Often, I think of my friend alone in her house and wonder what will happen if she wakes up disoriented in the night. Or if she trips over her little dog (pets being another reason the elderly cling to home). I think of her children – although I am old, I have a mother and mother-in-law still living. I know about the care of elderly relatives far away. And I think of the people without homes. Street people, refugees, prisoners. There should be a better solution to this, but it is part of the “blight that man was born for” which all of us and Hopkins “mourn for.” But, still, we could do better.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of old folks squatting in their deteriorating homes and becoming increasingly defensive toward anyone who tries to move them. I think again of Frost and his description of a very elderly farmer, alone in his drafty house on a frigid winter’s night, nodding by the fire:

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

It’s “thus” that they do it, and it’s both heroic and sad. But it’s preferable – to them, if not to the rest of us.

The story this week, “Option to Buy,” is about the potent symbol of houses – and maybe a little about the difference between a house and a home.

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