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.

Failed Generation?

A while back, I was listening to Krista Tippett interviewing the Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli (author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I can recommend as a good primer for those of us who learned our last physics in high school). In talking about his past, Rovelli said this (in his charming Italian accent):

I spent my youth traveling and being a little bit revolutionary in the Italian politics of the time. And at some point, we wanted to change the world. I’m of that generation; we failed. And at some point, I just fell in love with physics…

Now, Rovelli is a little younger than I am, but apparently he saw himself as a child of the sixties – those days when we were going to “change the world.” He says “we failed.” And I thought that was worth thinking about.

And then in Sunday’s NY Times in an article about movies of the sixties, I read this:

“A revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao Zedong said, but this revolution was also a party, and left behind a legacy of hedonism. Rather than tearing down the consumer society, the ’68 students helped to open it up. Their generation is remembered more for its embrace of sexual freedom and personnel fulfillment, for a social transformation enacted in the realm of the personal.

We were the children of the “greatest generation” that fought the wars (World War II or Korea or both) that saved the world for democracy. Big shoes to fill and we tried to fill them in a way that often pitted generation against generation. Fights over the dinner table about draft resistance and whether girls should wear “dungarees.” Protests at the state house about civil rights and women’s rights. And, in many of these crusades, we did not fail. There were new civil rights laws, the Vietnam War came to an end, women wore jeans and entered the workplace in huge numbers. And yet.

We did not seem to learn any lessons from Vietnam. Black Lives Matter is not a given for many of our citizens. The ERA was never passed. Women went to the workplace, but still did most of the work at home. And the president who was most recently elected could not be more different from the young president who inspired us.

Rovelli is right; at some point we grew weary with taking on the world and fell in love – with our partners, our children, our careers, new technology and avocations. And here we are looking out over the environmental and political wasteland that somehow happened when we were paying for our children’s education, learning to use a scanner, and scouting out retirement locations. We had to make a living; we had to start trusting people over thirty when they were us. We let things slide.

And there was something we forgot (if we ever really knew it). There was another part of the boomer generation; these were the people who went to Vietnam willingly, who felt that integration and the sexual revolution were forced on them. While many of us gloried in what technology could bring us in the way of iPads and cell phones, many of them were losing jobs to robotic technology. While some us saw increased globalization as a way to have cool cars (remember the VW buses?) and exotic vacations, other saw their livelihoods move to Mexico or the Philippines. These members of our own generation – and their parents and children – would seem to have elected our current president, to have pressed the brake on change – hard and with the force of resentment. Read Hillbilly Elegy. Listen to Fox News (but don’t listen long).

When we rebelled, our parents did not agree with us, but they eventually came around. They loved us. But there was a big part of the boomer generation that found the change too hard and too fast. It hit at their basic values. Some took solace in religion, some in patriotism, and others in their own kind of rebellion, their own kind of Tea Party. Why couldn’t we win them over? Did they see that the college kids were just going through a phase and then returning (with their degrees) to a secure middle class life? How did we fail to connect?

Our generation accomplished much and we are still kicking. Old ladies in tennis sneakers are a powerful force and provide the backbone of many good causes. But somewhere we failed.

Many of us lament the fact that the younger generation does not seem to feel the need to change the world that some of us felt. Yet, we see the murmurings begin with the students from Parkland, from the persistence of Black Lives Matter. And, to be honest, our generation had the impetus of the draft at our back threatening our brothers or boyfriends or selves. But, you say, the young have an environment that is crumbling around them. It’s their world they are watching lapse into environmental and political chaos. I still believe they will act. But, whatever they do, let’s hope they do it in an inclusive way. Including all members of their generation. And us too. We still have our tennis sneakers.

This week’s story, “Common Enemy” (from the Sam Levenson quote “the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy”), is not about politics, but, well, I’ll let you decide what it’s about….