by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
It’s a season for retirements, and maybe new abodes, and rotations of habitat from city to waterfront and back again: life is on the move in summer.
That’s maybe why Family came up on the blog, last week and this. Has family remained the emotional and value core of this mobile Canadian society? Immediate – spouse and children – yes. But wider? Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins? I don’t know. (And will Stats Can ever again be able to tell us?).
I was also been stirred by the words of Julian Barnes in Staring at the Sun:
Gregory wondered if this was what being old meant: everything you wanted to say required a context. If you gave the full context, people thought you a rambling old fool. If you didn’t give the context, people thought you a laconic old fool. The very old needed interpreters just as the very young did. When the old lost their companions, their friends, they also lost their interpreters: they lost love, but they also lost the full power of speech.
Is it not to be devoutly wished that we would all have interpreters when we grow old, to allow ongoing contact between our aging selves and those in the wider world? Who might they be? Who is lining up for the job?
Looking Back to Last Week
Last week I spoke of the Open Family and the Fortress Family, suggesting that the former would be a better recruiting ground for helpers of the aging. But who, besides family, contributes to the well-being of older adults who lack the comfort and support of family, extended or living nearby?
We may build, in our 20’s and 30’s, alternatives to blood ties: “friend families” formed among people who live apart from families of origin, with common perspectives, humour, music, aspirations and geographic proximity. Hard to tell the staying power of these affectionate groupings but they enrich the lives of everybody in the circle while intact.
Ah, Friends – Bless Them
The pull of pairing off and starting new families erodes the attachment to friends, but I’ve seen people gifted at sharing the love of their children with childless friends, intentionally and thoughtfully. And individual friendship, lasting through the decades, brighten emotional landscapes to the end of our lives, sometimes with as much wattage as a related brother or sister.
It’s unbearable to think of the point ahead when we outlive some of our relatives and friends. It’s already happening. Time won’t stand still. So there’s grief ahead, if we have people to care about. The pain will be the same whether family or friend, and that’s a whole realm of thought onto itself – for another time.
So what will sustain us, and others, as we grow older?
Family, friendship circles, one-on-one best friends; that leaves community as the other big pillar of adult emotional life.
Neighbours can be an amazing happenstance support (we won’t speak of terrible neighbours, which I’ve heard do exist). There are, in this big tough city, remarkable streets and apartment buildings of neighbours , where the ethos is to look out for each other. What a wonderful way to live, for older people, where helping each other out is the self-appointed task of the retired. If you’ve also got family and friends – from what I see, this can be the best.
Church community can be rich and deep. Sharing a faith practice ties us with unspoken bonds that can manifest in very practical help. And the fundamental focus on the needs of others releases all kinds of creativity. One is blessed if part of a long-surviving church family.
Clubs, groups, dance and exercise classes –so much available. Yes, for general amusement. And ties grow if enough time is spent together.
But for real life, sustaining and enriching, I’m not convinced that remaining busy and sharing fun can be enough by itself. A person to sit with you and bring a cup of tea when your dog dies emerges more often from your family, long-term friends, neighbours, members of a firm community.
So What Can We Do to Prepare?
Can we devise ways to structure a future where we are able to help each other? Do we have any control over whether the positive supports will be in play?
A good friend, appealingly pro-active, has been inquiring into the possibilities of a shared-housing model: five couples buying into a custom-designed condo floor, with five modest but complete apartments surrounding a Common Room with washroom and kitchen attached (for lots of communal events). Privacy with friendship, neighbourliness, and community at hand. Provision for future attendant or nursing care needs. Does such a model make sense? It could provide for the period where we encounter losing a partner (let alone the dog).
I love the idea. What do you think? Are there other visions?