I’ve been thinking about being old in America. My parents are 91 and 88. They live in an assisted living facility ten minutes from me. They are in pretty decent shape for their ages, but it is not a happy time for them. Aside from aches and pains and fatigue, they are restless and somehow, in the midst of other residents and caregivers, lonely.
I imagine a better last decade. Acknowledging it’s over-simplified, I think they’d be better off if they were just needed. After a lifetime of working and controlling his life, my father yearns to be useful. He takes great pride in helping “those old women” scoot their chairs up to the table at every meal. He corrals all the walkers, too. He is capable of more, but what more is there for him to do? Imagine if he still lived on a farm like the one he grew up on. He could still feed the chickens, milk the cow. Work in the garden a little. He did light housework until two years ago, but now that’s done for him, too.
As for being lonely, I can understand that too. Yes, they have friends and they see them at least three times a day in the dining room. The staff are all sweet and kind and really like my mom and dad. But, if you have grown children, you understand this, too: they really want to be among their family, all the time.
While I was researching and actually writing Crimson Sky, I thought about how the elderly lived in 1600 among the Native Americans of northern New Mexico. My heroine’s grandmother is a major character, and her daily life became part of mine. She lived in a pueblo where the rooms were small and people slept elbow to elbow. She shared her pallet with her toddler grandson. She shared the meal-grinding chore with her granddaughters. She was old and becoming more fragile, but she could still make a pot, and pots were needed. She could still watch the children while their mothers were in the field. She was useful, and she was with her family all the time. There was no sharp dividing line between working life and idle retirement. Between being an involved member of the larger family and being a peripheral entity whom their great grand children see merely as incidental to their own lives.
Certainly my parents and other octogenarians of our era would not have lived so long in that time and place. I don’t wish away antibiotics and blood pressure medicine, but I wish we, the general we of Americans, had better integrated family structures. My children and grandchildren live in other states. I miss them. I can see my own parents (me too) might be happier if we all lived in a big compound somewhere and they were in the midst of family of all ages and were asked to contribute to the family’s well-being. It isn’t going to happen for us nor for most other folks in our country. Will I take my ailing parents into my home for their last years? No. Many complications involved from strained feelings to my own health, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing for a better solution.