We Must All Hang Together…

hands… or, assuredly, we will all hang separately.*

Being human is not for the faint of heart. Being a kid, being a teen, being an adult, a parent, the child of parents with health or memory issues. There is no age of being human that doesn’t come with challenges. Family helps. But family has changed over the centuries, and our idea of what family owes us (and what we owe our families) has changed too.

Time was, if you had children, they were raised to be part of a support system–doing increasingly complex chores, learning the family business or taking over tasks on the farm. My father and his siblings helped out with his father’s store in Brooklyn; 30 years later my grandmother was living with my aunt and uncle and their family; ten years later I (dimly) recall visiting her at a nursing home (she had Alzheimers). She was cared for within the family as long as possible.  In the same way, my mother’s mother wound up moving into an in-law apartment in my aunt’s home; eventually they knocked out the wall between her apartment and theirs, and she stayed at home through the rest of her life. 

But when the next generation–my father, and my in-laws–were getting older, they chose to move into tiered retirement communities–places where you start out in “independent living”, but may eventually move up to assisted care or nursing care. Part of their rationale was that they didn’t want to burden their kids with their care. Some of it, I suspect, was to preserve their autonomy. And perhaps some of it was to be in a community of their peers–smart, accomplished people who wanted to preserve their autonomy and didn’t want to burden their kids.

My kids are adults now. While my husband and I are not quite in the looking-for-a-place-to-retire-to demographic yet, the thought occurs: we don’t particularly want to burden our kids either. I have watched friends dealing with aging parents with serious health issues, dementia–and it wears them down. The thing is: they’re not part of an entire family engaged in taking care of a parent–they’re the one who somehow has been left with the care of an aged parent when the rest of the family can’t, or won’t help out. The parent may not be cooperative, let alone appreciative. Me: I tell my kids I’m planning to be the World’s Most Difficult Old Woman, but I don’t really want to be. And I don’t know who they’ll be–or what sort of support system they’ll have when we reach that point.

My friends, quite a lot of them actually, talk about all of us buying an island, or a town, to retire to. Because we’d all be SF geeks, or left-leaning types, or pop-culture nerds, and it would be like a life-long SF convention, right? It’s the logical extension of being surrounded by family of choice, rather than family of origin. The thing is, at some point one of us doddering geeks will need more help than other doddering geeks can provide. An intentional community of old folks needs caregivers, administrators, memory-care specialists, people who know what they are doing with an elderly population.

It’s not just old people who need support, or their kids who need support in supporting them. I read a piece from The Daily Beast the other day: Why Are America’s Postpartum Practices So Rough on New Mothers? It looks at the way we in this country treat childbirth: the sort of “here’s your hat, what’s yer hurry?” bum’s rush you get from the hospital, your job, sometimes even your family. Childbirth is grueling, exhausting, emotionally consuming… and then they send you home with the door prize and say “Good luck, kid!” I was really lucky: both my mother-in-law and my aunt showed up to cook and change diapers and even clean my refrigerator (!) after each of my kids were born. They encouraged me to sit around and mend and get to know my new human, rather than trying to be up and bustling. But by and large, that kind of “it takes a village” familial support is increasingly unusual.

Why is it unusual? We’re spread all across the country, for one thing. And as a society we don’t want to bother each other. If someone offers help, well, that’s nice, if maybe a little uncomfortable (I am world-class miserable at accepting help unless I’m at death’s door). But asking for it? Or worse: expecting it? Horrors. And if I expect something from someone, that means they might expect something from me, and I don’t know if I’ll be up to the task… Perhaps we have issues with our family, or maybe we’re more comfortable being a little isolated, and engaging with others is just scary.

In fact, we extend ourselves a million times a day, for our families, our friends, absolute strangers. They may be small extensions: holding open a door, saying thank you or I like your scarf or how’s that book? We make connections in small ways; it’s the idea of connecting in big ways thats intimidating. Maybe because we’re afraid that one person who extends herself will get used up, burnt out and resentful.

And that’s where the “we must all hang together” comes in. Life will continue to give each one of us reasons we need support. Every single bit of support we get makes us stronger. So does every bit of support we give.

*Benjamin Franklin, famous elder statesman. Or if you prefer, Howard da Silva in 1776. Take your pick.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


We Must All Hang Together… — 10 Comments

  1. Well, we have our own Nancy Jane Moore, professional co-op organizer. A friend (Laurie, you there?) suggests that the smart buy would be a failed hotel. You’d have lots of bedrooms, each with their bathroom. You’d have parking, laundry, handicap-accessible corridors and elevators and a restaurant/dining facility. All the public function rooms could be filled with bookcases. We’d bring our own books and spend time organizing them alphabetically and then reading each other’s treasures. (I can kick in a first edition of FISH DINNER IN MEMNISON. It is clear that I am never going to read through all of E. R. Edison until I retire.) We could call it Geezercon.

    • One of the reasons I met my sweetheart is that I wrote some years back about the idea of organizing a writers’ co-op apartment building. He read about it, and since he is also interested in intentional community, wrote back. One thing led to another and I ended up in California. But we’re not living in a community and would like to.

      I’d like a multi-generation community if we could get one together. That way we’d have younger people to help the older ones, but it wouldn’t have to be a big burden. I agree with Laurie about old hotels, though I think most people will want kitchens of their own.

      Here’s the thing: this is a lot of work. It’s all the problems of buying property and doing renovations, with the added issue of working with people who have different ideas. Cooperation requires compromise and listening and not everyone is good at that, plus anything that involves money puts people on edge. So doing this sort of thing is not simple. But it is a good idea.

      • Having dealt with the terrific place my father lived in for the last twelve years of his life–it not only takes set-up, it takes ongoing management (not only on an individual level of going up to help Maude with her laundry, or making sure that Jim remembers to eat at least once a day, but in terms of running the establishment itself–like being part of a co-op board). For the younger generations they’re gambling on younger people buying in after them, so that they’ll be cared for. And our society seems to be increasingly pulling away from the pay-it-forward model of social commitment. I worry.

  2. I’ll chip in to Geezercon, but hubby won’t. He’s at home in this aging red-neck reality based community that won’t have anything to do with spec fic. I’m the fish out of water. I want Geezercon now!

    • I think we’d have to be a little less restrictive than SF Geezercon–for one thing, we’re not all interested just in SF. My husband isn’t much of a reader, but he’d be an asset to such a community (he’s funny, for one thing. And his knowledge of Warner Bros. cartoons, Beatles trivia, and the ins and outs of movie sound design is encyclopedic).

      • Yeah, spouses get to come. The other idea is to be an unofficial Geezercon. We pick a reasonable senior living facility, and gradually take it over.

        • Coup par la persistance.

          We’d need to partner with a local school system – act as after school care and historical/cultural reference librarians in exchange for shoveling and shopping duties?

  3. I have pondered these questions recently, with much the same conclusion — that there is no simple solution and I’m not sure what option I would chose to enter when I become an Even Older Fart Than I Am Now.

    I do so much genealogy I’m constantly reminded of the virtues of the old support systems. I come from really great people who were there for each other. While I realize the old days weren’t perfect — the lack of antibiotics, the lack of indoor plumbing, the lack of a science fiction genre of fiction — I do wish we’d held on better to the good parts of farm-and-small-village life.

    • Having spent some time lately watching family-based care that includes the whole range of family-based dysfunction, I’m not a huge fan of doing this strictly within the family. One of the things that I think is truly important is for aging people to build as strong a network of friends of all ages as they can. Even if your family can take care of your health and material needs, both you and they need other people to take care of your social ones. Isolation is a big problem as we get older. Which is why I like intentional communities, except for the hard work of putting one together part.