A New Home, but still “Home”

I commented earlier on our “going home plan,” i.e., the arrangements we need to have in place before we die. [1] But if I want to think of where Bette and I choose to live as a place we will make into a home [2], then getting there is a sort of “going home plan.”

at home 5Wendy Lustbader has written more sensibly about aging than anyone I have read for a long time and in a recent issue of Generations (2014) she wrote a piece called “It All Depends on What You Mean by Home.” Isn’t it the truth!

Lustbader emphasizes the intuitive character of “the feeling of being at home.” She says:

Exactly what we mean when we say we feel at home turns out to be quite complex, yet the term makes intuitive sense to all of us. The term connotes a state of ease, which we immediately recognize: we know it when we feel it.

And also:

We certainly know it when we lose it.

And also:

Despite the idiosyncratic nature of their responses, three central elements emerged: access to the dignity privacy, and choice inherent in normal life; the capacity to form significant relationships; and the means to contribute to other people’s lives.

Those three quotes and the one I will end with just might interest you in Lustbader’s writings too.

Dignity, Privacy, and Choice

Among the criticisms that emerge from Lustbader’s interviews, some them seem very solid to me; others merely querulous. Here is one of the solid ones. One man said he didn’t like the idea that:

he needed to be “kept busy” through a program of activities. He said it seemed as if he were staying at a perpetual resort, rather than living his true life. “This is too empty for me;’ he continued. “I need to be useful.

The passive form of the verb in “be kept busy” jumped out at me right away. This man would love to keep busy. “Being kept busy” is another kind of thing entirely. Then there is the commitment to “being useful.” If you were designing a retirement center with the most urgent needs of the residents in mind, would you say, “I know what. Let’s attract people who have had long and useful lives and deprive them of that essential usefulness by which they have always marked their interactions.” Probably you would not. On the other hand, “providing experiences” is probably pretty cheap, by comparison with helping residents find community needs to which they can commit themselves.

Here’s one of the ones that seemed to me more querulous than anything else.

“Attending a program is not living” She suggested that participating in a current events program every Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. is not the same as striking up a conversation with a neighbor who shares an avid interest in social and political issues.”

This puts “participating in a program” in opposition to “striking up a conversation with a neighbor.” Ideally, those would be a natural sequence, it seems to me. “So, what did you think of the discussion on refugees? I think if we are going to expect towns to be more accepting of refugees, Congress is going to have to provide them better support.” If that neighbor shares your avid interest, the response ought to be pretty good. Pretty soon, someone says, “Let’s get Ralph and Lauren and go get a cup of coffee and work this out.”

Forming significant relationships

Old age is a wonderful time to have significant relationships. It is not a good time to have to develop them from scratch. [3] At any age, you have to strike some kind of balance between “who I am” and “who I need to be to be accepted.” I’m not complaining; that is what life in an individualistic society is going to be like.

at home 1But among people who have known you for a long time, there is a broader kind of acceptance and it is based on a broader kind of knowledge. People who have known you for a long time know “who you really are,” not just how you seem in the afternoon after your nap. “How he is after his nap” is part of what friends know about you. “He’ll be fine,” they will say, “Just give him a little time.”

Ideally, you move into a retirement center when you still have friends “on the outside.” [4] So the new friends who are just getting to know you are added to the old friends who already do. On the other hand, if moving into a retirement center means leaving behind all the people who know that kind of thing about you, then starting over is going to be tough. We ought to expect to hear complaints like this one.

Newcomers often feel lonely, despite lip service paid to a welcoming atmosphere. Even after several months have passed, they say the ethos of friendliness claimed in the brochures simply does not pan out. “I’m tired of trying to get to know anyone here,” one woman in assisted living said. “It’s like the door is closed on making new friends.”

Here again, there are things that need to be respected and things that can be disregarded. I think we can pass by “the ethos of friendliness claimed in the brochures” as a real disappointment. Has the person who said that never written a brochure? Never known anyone who wrote a brochure? Never had an experience that did not measure up to what the advertising department said about it? Probably not.


Who hasn’t felt like this guy?  I don’t want to feel that way as an old man!

On the other hand, the sense that “the door is closed on making new friends” is a real issue. People who live together set up friendship networks. Those are “closed” in the sense that any stable association of people is closed. These networks can be opened but a) not immediately and b) not unless you bring something to the party. One of the wisest and wittiest remarks I ever read was this:


“They told me to make friends so I wouldn’t be lonely, but it turns out that friends you make so you won’t be lonely aren’t good enough friends to keep you from being lonely.”

Lustbader tells this story about her grandmother.

When she was older than eighty, my own grandmother refused to attend a senior center, saying, “Why would I want to be with a bunch of old people? I’m a live wire, but all they talk about is grandchildren, doctor’s appointments, bowel movements, and medications.” I respectfully challenged her: “Grandma, you are a live wire, but—I hate to say it—someone could mistake you for an old lady. You should go to the senior center, just in case there are some other live wires there disguised as old ladies.” She went, and found four other women with whom she shared laughter and vivaciousness until she died.

I really like that story. I like the distinction the grandmother makes between her sense of herself (live wire) and her sense of the setting she is resisting (conversations dominated by grandchildren, etc.) It is a distinction worth making. “I am X,” the distinction says, “but IT is Y.” But much more than I like that, I like Lustbader’s counter, “Grandma, you are right. You really are X. But there may be some other ladies there who are X’s in disguise. Let’s go find out.”

How can you not like a social worker who can talk like that to her own grandmother?

[1] In Christian theology, “home,” provides only a very dim light apart from questions of relationship. At the risk of dismissing Heaven as our ultimate destination—which I know is very important to some people—I think it makes more sense to think of trust in an ultimate relationship as “home.” I wish Billy Joel were not talking about romantic love between very young people when he wrote, “Home can be the Pennsylvania Turnpike/Indiana’s early morning dew/High up in the hills of California/Home is just another word for you.” A Christian might say, “Home is just another word for being with You.”
[2] Honors to James Whitcomb Riley, “the Hoosier poet,” who correctly said that “it takes a heap of livin’ in a house to make it home.”
[3] I speak as a man who was forced to enter “the dating scene” in my late sixties.
[4] I borrowed that from crime show dialog where the writers think that is the way inmates refer to non-inmates. I liked the irony of the term at this point in the essay.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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