I came of age during the 1960s, in the heyday of the hippie communes of California, and it is the flower children with whom I first associated communal living. Communes have been around for a long time though (continuously for more than 200 years in America, according to Wikipedia; a longer continuous period than in any other country), and will probably always be around. The focus changes, but what universally defines them is that they are intentional communities of people living together who share a common interest.
Though being part of a hippie commune was never on my bucket list, community living as an old person is. My first experience with how the seemingly forgotten old-old lived was when I was a candy striper on the nursing care floor of the former St. Helen’s Hospital in Chehalis. Under the stern supervision of Sister Perpetua, I learned not only to keep my pink-striped pinafore and white blouse freshly ironed, but how to be in a room with the old-old and not throw up. I practiced the bed-making with hospital corners I had learned in Girl Scouts. Beyond that, I really don’t remember what my best friend Sue Ann and I did on those afternoons after school. I did believe that the habit-wearing Sister was ancient at that time, so I was stunned a couple of years ago when my mother sent me an article from the local paper about her. She must have been 120 by then.
Perhaps on the strength of my candy striper experience, or maybe just because they were desperate, I landed a summer job during college as a nurses’ aid in a local nursing home. It was before the years of retirement and assisted-living centers. Or at least before I was aware of them. It was a stereotypical facility－though a relatively decent one, I suppose－where the town’s old-old sat bent over strapped into wheel chairs in the hallways, or lay in their beds all day if they couldn’t get up. The lucky ambulatory ones walked up and down the halls. Those who could speak talked about going home. My short tight white uniform that zipped up the front was kind of hot, but other than that it was not a sexy job. I fed residents, helped them to the bathroom, cleaned them up when they didn’t get there. And tried not to lose my temper with the regular staff when they berated the residents behind their backs. Hard as the job was, the staff was the worst part.
In the 1980s when my mother’s mother could no longer live alone and the options available to her were live with my parents or live in a nursing home－and she did both－ I really became aware of how terrible the choices were. She lived to the age of 99, so there were many years to observe. As it became clear that family members of my parents’ generation were going to get old if all went well (and five of them lived or are living into their 90s－my uncle is 102), I began to cast about for a different view of what I want for my own aging.
I want to live in community. Perhaps in a big old house with private spaces and communal dining. I see a half dozen women－already friends in my fondest fantasy－of varying ages buying a house together, pooling their skills and their resources. I dream of old ones caring for the old-old ones as the need arises and younger ones buying in as older ones depart. Of course there would be a guest room for our children or grandchildren to visit. Perhaps a CNA would live there, too. And a garden.
I don’t know how to make it happen. And it won’t happen by itself. My friends are scattered across the country－some, like myself, have returned to their soul homes or never left them－and none of us will want to relocate. As I live this year with my mother’s old age in my face on a daily basis, I am aware that I can’t play Scarlett O’Hara much longer: “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”