August 9, 2012 —
“I don’t want to end up like my father,” my Narrowsburg neighbor tells me. His 98-year-old father lives alone in his own home, reliant on family to bring him meals and keep him company. His life savings went to pay for nursing home care for his ailing wife and he retired from yard work last year at age 97.
My aunt sits in her gracious home in Manhattan, waited on by a private staff, alone except for them and visits from friends and family members. A stroke victim, she cannot work or read. Her care will decimate her assets before long, and she will have to sell her home at a time she is least able to manage.
My mother died in a semi-private room in a Bronx nursing home. She had squandered or been swindled out of the proceeds of the SoHo loft she shared with her husband before his early death. Ultimately destitute and infirm, she was cared for by the state at the end.
My uncle points an imaginary gun to his head when the question of his plans for the end of life arise. We choose not to believe him and, as far as I know, he owns no weapon. His own father managed to wrangle a calm and orderly exit to a long life, attended by a younger wife who ran the household like a drill sergeant but kept him out of nursing homes. His excellent health care was covered by the U.S. Army, to which he had dedicated a large part of his life.
A friend’s father recently made the transition from the family home to an assisted living facility—“facility” is such a cold word—at age 92. His care is guaranteed for life and he is near the community he knows and loves.
We all carry these stories, examples of the way to live or not to live to the end of our natural lives. They inform the choices we make, if we are fortunate enough to have choices.
My husband and I recently decided to put our Manhattan loft on the market, ending a nearly 40-year run of vibrant family life in the rambling 3,000-square-foot home my husband built with sheetrock and two-by-fours from the initial investment of a relative pauper. My husband will continue to run his business in the city, so we can’t sever our ties completely. We will find a smaller place, in a not-so-trendy neighborhood. By downsizing now, we hope to live debt-free and give our children a head start on their futures. We also want to spend some time together as a couple again, rather than as roommates with our adult children. In Manhattan, as in most places outside of Detroit, the cost of living is too high for those starting out. Most people we know are in the same situation. We baby boomers gave birth to the boomerang generation, who move back home after college unable to pay the high rents in desirable urban areas.
We worried at first that our children would balk at this move, having lived happily as loft rats. But they too are watching the lives of people around them and taking note of the responsibilities that fall to adult children. If we can tie up loose ends before it’s too late, it will be easier on them in the end. Many more choices are ahead of us as we age. Life is ultimately tragic, ending as it does, even more so if you have lived it well, as we intend.