My mother lives in a ‘retirement community’ in Long Beach California, on the fifth floor of beautifully restored hotel from the golden era of Hollywood called The Breakers. The ceiling of the lobby floats twenty feet above the marble floor, with intricately worked plaster panels that put the tin ceilings of Greenwich Village cafes to shame. The peaked red tile of its roofs and turrets lend it a Mission revival feeling, and the top floor restaurant, the Sky Room, earns its name with a spectacular panorama of the harbor, while retaining a heady whisper of old time movie glamour. The staff is charming and helpful, the suites themselves are spacious and sunny, sparked with period detail in the moldings and baseboards, with high ceilings and water views. The dining room is spacious and congenial, the other residents friendly and patient. You couldn’t ask for a more pleasant and professional assisted living arrangement.
And I hated it, with every fiber of my being.
I hated the way the impeccably courteous, and hard-working staff treated my mother and the other residents as a separate, feeble race, inferior but privileged like hemophiliac dwarf royalty, simultaneously catered to and patronized, deferred to and dismissed. I hated the smell in the hallways, some tragic perfume of disinfectant and decay – the sense, so much like the sense you get in a hospital, of a world where human volition and dignity have been sacrificed to the mechanisms of medical technology and routine.
I also hated the dining hall food, tasteless and generic as if the management actually calibrated how many of the residents had no working taste-buds left and arranged the meal preparations accordingly. I hated the weak coffee and the fuzzy sausages, and the cardboard pancakes, the sense that the particular texture of life, the look and feel and taste of things, didn’t really matter any more.
Most of all I hated the resignation of the people there, their palpable sense of loneliness and abandonment, the heartbreaking schedule of activities posted in the elevator (Exercise classes at noon, crafts at three, casino night on Thursdays), and the veil of stigma that seemed to hang over the lives shuffling across the frayed carpets of the upstairs corridors like the smog on the harbor: to be there was to be forgotten, warehoused, left behind and abandoned. Behind each stoical face there was the piercing awareness of a family prosperous enough to install an older relative in such a luxurious setting, and yet unwilling to include them in the daily life of the family.
It felt claustrophobic and unnatural, as perhaps an orphanage might feel at the other end of both life and affluence. For millions of years, in every country on earth, from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages to probably just before the Industrial Revolution, the older members of a family lived with the other generations, offering guidance and receiving help, passing on oral history and family secrets and recipes and folk medicine and being eased out of life among their children and their children’s children. This lovely place was most of all unnatural, inhumane in its segregation of the aged.
It is cruel and mean-spirited to exile our parents and grandparents to such a place, where they are surrounded only by cheerful servants and other old people and a smattering of younger residents crippled with life shattering diseases like Multiple Sclerosis. It’s a world of decay and extinction. It wears you down, makes you feel half-dead already, padding through an upholstered necropolis infinitely removed from a daughter’s embrace or a home-cooked meal. Our elder relatives need us, they need to feel the continuance of life, the noise of rowdy grandchildren, the conversation of adult kids, the excitement of dogs, the easy welcome of people who love them.
And we need them, that’s what we forget in the busy rush of our over-scheduled lives. We need their shrewd intelligence and their hard-won experience and the connection they create to our own childhoods. We need to be part of the end of their lives just as we needed them to guide us through the beginning of our own. It’s a simple circle, the real circle of life, and it feels like we’ve broken it, ruptured it, for nothing more than convenience. Or perhaps it’s something worse and more insidious – the denial of our own mortality, the cowardly glance away just as we avoid the mirror, pondering the competing claims of botox and the ‘lifestyle lift’.
Three days in Long Beach, wandering the husk of that old hotel, so long past its glory days, as forlorn as its inhabitants, sitting in the empty bar where Clark Gable and Greta Garbo had once eaten caviar and toasted the New Year, inventorying the unused walkers, and the coffee dispensers on the sideboard, made all of this uncompromisingly clear, both to me and to my brother. When my Mom said she wanted to get out of there, that she wanted to divide her years between our two families and spend whatever time she had left with people she loved, with people who loved her and missed her and wanted to be with her, we scarcely had to discuss it. We just breathed a sigh of relief, grabbed each other for a group hug, and started planning her escape.
The logistics will be tricky – commuting twice a year between Nantucket and Australia won’t be easy, but none of that matters.
Only one thing matters to any of us right now:
Mom is coming home.