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Aging in Community

"Aging in community" is an emerging field in Gerontology. Research indicates that aging in community has many benefits. For my parents and many like them, first generation children of immigrants to Canada, the sociology of aging was of little concern. Surviving beyond retirement - that was the primary goal. After that, staying put: aging near where they had grown up, lived, worked, preferably in the home already bought and paid for, where they had raised their children, and to which they would welcome their grandchildren: a pattern now called "aging in place," in Canada considered the cheapest and easiest way to house the aging – especially as many owned their own place and could survive on their pensions -- no longer such facile assumptions!

My parents died over 20 years ago. The situation today is different. Since moving to the U.S. for grad school, and later becoming citizens, we have "left home" over and over again. For decades, "belonging" has taken a back seat to making a living, and then to improving quality of life. Like many of our generation, we have relocated because of jobs, schools, children's wellbeing, neighborhood disruption, and family health. But for me now, the longing for belonging has emerged almost like a haunting, moving up from the back seat to become a ghost-driver. The longing is exacerbated by a continuing diaspora of our children and of friends disbursing all over the globe. Perhaps there is the real truth – community is being redefined as world-wide, global!
Our generation must pioneer through many new challenges. If "aging in community" is better than not, if aging in place is not an option for increasing numbers, and if aging in a ghettoized "community for the aged" is not an option (yet) either, then it is worth considering: Which community? With whom? Where?  For how long? To what purpose? 

Several years ago in San Diego, our children had both moved away, our own "nest" had emptied, and the peaceful cohesion of our neighborhood was shattered by rich, ruthless developers. We decided suddenly to sell our home in urban San Diego and to begin preparation for retirement. "And now for something completely different!" my husband exclaimed. Different indeed! We now live on a few wooded acres, as one of twelve families sharing a well, in a small rural community on an island in Puget Sound. During the search for where to settle, my husband and I had just begun considering the above questions. We didn't know the answers, but the "writing was on the wall." My husband's late father had an expression: "You don't have to go, but you can't stay here." Exactly!

We were fortunate to be able to make a joint decision to move into the mystery, to enter a new space, and to live into it. (Many couples we know are not able to come to a joint decision at this juncture, and separate.) The island community where we have chosen to live has long traditions of living in harmony with the Earth, with small family farms dotting its middle and south end, local farmers' markets, many cultural creatives, and resilient, caring offshoot groups from utopian spirit-based communities of the late 1960's. Our local neighbors are welcoming, and many members of the larger community are skilled in what is called here "radical hospitality."


As for belonging? "Not so fast!" island wisdom dictates. If someone familiar brings you in, then okay, you are already part of their circle. But for complete strangers, like us, utterly unknown -- well, strangers must first prove both their staying power and their worthiness – ten years is the typical waiting period for inclusion. (At least let it be in my lifetime! I hear myself wish on a dark winter morning.) After several years here, with both of us now having actually retired from our old jobs and both of us spending major parts of each day in artistic endeavors in our home studio, connecting with the community begins to take on a certain urgency for me, yet still I hold back. This past year, my husband's first year of full retirement from "bleeding edge" engineering development, I have noticed differences in our social needs emerging ever more sharply. Serenity, it turns out, is what my husband most seeks, sheer unperturbed serenity. Freedom to pursue tasks of his own choosing sets him off whistling happily for weeks at a time. But for me, the longer I live here in the bush, the greater the tension between outsider and entering in.
My husband seems unconcerned about identity. Simple Being is his bailiwick! What others make of him is their problem, he would say, whereas I seem to need a few more "significant others" than he does to feel vital, well-used, and fully alive. Increasingly only through deep relations do I recognize and enact my social "identity," my who-ness. As I seriously assess the quality of my own connectedness, keeping in mind the waning communications from old friends now far away, recalling the sudden shut-out from work associates following retirement from advocacy, mulling over the many reasons why we had to move from our former home, where I (though not my husband) thought we would live out our "golden years," and feeling more often than is good for me the isolation that is the flip side of self-sufficient self-employment, I find myself asking: who am I, really, here, now? Who am I as I enter this community at this time in my life? And on the likely chance that community is not just what you get, but what you give, how do the needs of the community in which I have chosen to age align with what I have to offer? Which I? Which gift?

Identity and Aging

I was relieved to discover yesterday that "Aging and Identity" is yet one more emerging area in Gerontology. It turns that out empty-nesting and looming retirement are only two of the triggers. Life expectancy for our generation is almost an additional generation beyond what the previous generation anticipated. My own parents and my husband's parents all died in their early seventies. They had only a couple of years of retirement, and even those few years were severely compromised by serious illness. They had no opportunity to discover or recover other aspects of themselves. For our generation, who we are, how we act, and what we contribute during this next third of our lives could make a huge difference, not only to ourselves, but to the world around us!

Demographers reckon that over a billion people will be sixty years of age and beyond by the year 2020. If most of them are retired and can access their gifts, imagine the number of people-hours available each year – even if every person gave only 1 hour, on average, per day, per year to the commonweal – to the betterment of communities ----- 365 billion people-hours per year is nothing to sneeze at --- and surely not a resource we should waste! So if I and others choose to 'age in community,' we all have a reason to consider not only who we are in community and what gifts we might have to offer, but HOW we are in community, what does it really take to belong?!

Below is a story about what can happen when aging and community do not coincide. In my blog, I will discuss models I have often witnessed in communities where I have lived. I am definitely looking for a different model!

Years ago, in my thirties, several years after moving to San Diego, I returned to Boston for a short visit. I looked up old student friends, faculty, and colleagues but discovered that all but a very few were long-gone. The trip confirmed the impressions from twelve years living and studying in the Boston/Cambridge area, that the place was to a great extent an intellectual bus depot, a stop-over or transition place, most degree-seeking students staying only until graduation, post docs surviving on poverty-level, year-to-year fellowships, junior faculty working in vain for tenure, at bargain-basement salaries in a high-cost city, and all but a few percent moving on to their "real lives," hopefully with a living wage, far from Boston. Community from that perspective was distinctly transient, ephemeral and huge energy was spent making friends only to lose them.

For old times sake, toward the end of my visit, I dropped by our former neighborhood. It was a stable, working class area of west Cambridge where we had lived during much of graduate school and my husband's post doc. We rented the bottom floor of a triple-decker house, for low rent, in exchange for helping out, on a street we affectionately called Gerontology Row (having then no idea how quickly time would fly before we too joined those ranks!). The residents, many of them the aging offspring of the original owners, had been retired for several years and seemed "old" to us, as we must have seemed perilously young to them! The generation gap was evident, but our relationships were courteous and deepened with the birth of our first child, especially as word got around that we had few visitors and no family in the country. We received knitted hats, tiny crocheted sweater-and-booties sets, soft pastel baby blankets, a packet of children's books, and the indulgent glances of old neighbors who looked up from their gardening to peek at our little guy as we pushed the old-fashioned, second hand baby buggy on long walks through the neighborhood.

My visit this day was impromptu and as I knocked on the doors of the older residents I had known, I discovered that most of them had died in the interim. One dear woman looking out her window from the top floor of one of the triple-deckers recognized me as I wandered by. Though she had been a shy neighbor (one of the hat-knitters!) and I had only spoken to her on the street in the past, she called down to me from her small back porch and invited me up to tea. As we sat in her kitchen, Jackie shared that her husband Max had died, and that she missed him terribly, especially as it had so long been just the two of them, as they had no children, and did most everything together. As we were only passing acquaintances in the past, we had not been in contact either. Asking for my address, which had changed a few times even since moving to San Diego, she reached for a crumbling leather address book, dog-eared from years of use. As she delicately thumbed through the fragile old pages, she shared an experience from the previous winter.

Having gathered what she needed to write her holiday greeting cards, she had been shocked to discover that every person in her address book with a star next to their name to receive a card was now dead. Everyone! Her lower lip trembled as she spoke. Inwardly I gasped, caught off guard by the stone-hard reality of aging. Without renewing community, loneliness is more than an option. And for aging, there is only one end….

I still remember the profound impact of our short visit that day. Aging and community no longer coincided for Jackie. Only now as I get older – elder - do I really begin to grasp what that gap can mean.

Community, I read recently, derives from a phrase meaning "sharing the same walls." How is it that I have lived so long imagining, from the outside, that community is what happens when the walls between us all fall down? What sort of community and what sort of "membership" will finally bridge the lingering gap for me between longing and belonging?

(I hear a faint whisper: Perhaps your art is your bridge.)

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