Barky Manor in its heyday (2007)
A few years ago I wrote an essay titled “The Weirdness of Planning for Extreme Old Age,” in which I described our ill-fated attempt to move to a retirement community. When our house failed to sell after a month on the market we decided to stay where we were. However, the fate that befell friends of mine impressed on me again the necessity of planning for extreme old age.
My two friends, whom I’ll call Beryl and Jenny, were looking forward to some years of comfortable living in a retirement community they knew well. Both Beryl and Jenny recognized that Jenny was experiencing dysphasia, but it wasn’t debilitating. For almost a year they enjoyed the benefits, the movies, the lectures, various festivities, and of course dining in the various venues the community offered.
Then disaster struck. Jenny fell out of bed, was taken to the hospital, and from that point on was never the same. She was moved to Happy Valley, the on-site building that housed skilled nursing, physical therapy, assisted living, and memory care. Following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, over the next year her condition continued to deteriorate: she no longer recognized her best friend Beryl, or Beryl’s son, or any of her other friends and relatives. Fifteen months after she fell out of bed, she died.
Beryl was left to cope with everything but she had one great advantage: she and Jenny had already downsized, already sold their house, already moved to the retirement community. There was a support infrastructure of social workers, doctors, nurses, caregiver support groups, and the friends they’d made before the onset of Jenny’s illness. Beryl has never driven a car: Jenny always did the driving and when she wasn’t available, Beryl’s son would drive Beryl where she needed to go. If Jenny’s illness and death had occurred while she and Beryl were still living in their suburban house, Beryl would have had an even more difficult time.
Observing this, I thought about what would happen if I were to find myself alone one day. How would I cope with that sizable house? If a storm blew out the electricity (a not infrequent occurrence in our neighborhood), what would I do? I didn’t know how to start the generator. I certainly couldn’t drive the pickup truck or the lawn tractor. When the TV went on the blink, I wouldn’t have the patience to sit on the phone with Verizon for three solid hours, pressing this and unplugging that until the wretched thing started working again: I’d just leave it.
Therefore, despite our decision to stay in our house following our failure to sell it in the fall of 2015, the situation of Beryl and Jenny unnerved me to the point that I felt we ought to have one more look at retirement communities.That’s how we ended up here at Gatsby Woods. When I saw the beautifully landscaped grounds and people enjoying afternoon walks around the ponds, I thought, “This is where I want to live.”
The first time we looked into the possibility of moving to the retirement community of Gatsby Woods, we were invited to a tour to see what the apartments were like. Residents were volunteer guides and hosts. As we stepped out of the elevator, a resident sitting in an armchair said, “It’s all upper middle-class people here.”
I privately translated that as, “Don’t worry about meeting people of color here—there aren’t any.”
Later, when I repeated the resident’s remark to one of the sales people, I added, “When I heard him say that about ‘upper middle class people’ I thought, ‘Well, that lets us out. We’re middle class, not upper middle.”
“I wonder which resident that was,” the sales associate said thoughtfully. “Anyway, most of the people at our community are just like you. Their biggest asset is their house.”
When I expressed doubts about moving from the multicultural neighborhood where we lived to an all-white retirement community, the sales associate told me that in the black community there is a tradition of caring for elders in the home of their sons and daughters. “However, we do have residents from every group in society,” she added.
It was for my own selfish reasons that I wanted to move to a continuing care community. If I find myself alone one day, life will be easier all round, not only for me but for my family. I hope never to need assisted living or memory care, but if I do they’re right here on site. The idea of not having to cook appealed to me greatly (that domestic chore gets really old after 50 years), as did the idea that my husband, now in his late 80s, would not have to mow the lawn or tend the garden.
In the year that elapsed between signing the contract for a one-bedroom-with-den, one-and-a-half bathroom apartment and the date when the building was ready for occupancy, we had time to get used to the idea of selling the house. After our disastrous previous experience, we certainly didn’t expect the house to sell two days after we put it on the market! However, two factors prevailed in early 2018: houses priced under $500,000 were scarce in our neighborhood, and interest rates were due to rise. It was nice to read what the buyers’ realtor wrote to our realtor: “My clients have been looking for precisely such a house,” rather than the feedback from prospective buyers we experienced in 2015: “The hardwood floors don’t match.”
“I am so glad you are moving to a home for the aged,” our sister-in-law wrote from Australia. That made me smile because in the USA we refer to such places as “continuing care communities.” The town we moved to, ten miles down the road from our previous location, is the second ugliest place I’ve ever seen: it’s nothing but sprawling acres of one-story server farms and one-story shopping centers. Here in Gatsby Woods we have beautifully landscaped grounds so we can forget about the ugliness outside, but I often ponder the fact that perhaps the reason Americans go to Europe is so they can look at beautiful buildings.
It’s always been difficult for me to let go of situations and people. After we moved random thoughts would drift into my mind:
Will the new owners know they have to cut the raspberry canes down to six inches after the first hard frost every fall?
Will they know they have to cover the strawberry bed with fine mesh netting and weight the edges with rocks so the creatures (birds, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels) won’t get the strawberries the minute they’re ripe?
Will they know the mint and the chives come back year after year?
Between the time we signed the contract and the time we moved, I had time to get used to the idea of leaving the house. I’d think, “This is the last fire we’ll ever have in the woodstove,” or “This is the last time I’ll look out at the shadows falling across the back yard on a winter afternoon.”
After we moved, the first time Younger Son and his family visited us and surveyed the indoor swimming pool, the gym, the convenience store and bank, the billiard room, art studios, and restaurants, he declared that he and Daughter-in-Law were going to buy gray wigs and start living here themselves. Our eleven-year-old granddaughter likes Gatsby Woods so much she’s instructed her parents to buy an apartment here when they grow old so she can drop off her kids when she needs baby sitters.
One of the hardest adjustments has been with everyday living. When we lived in our house we had dinner at 6:30 every night. There were always fresh flowers on the table and taper candles that matched the color of the flowers. We had tablecloths and cloth napkins, water glasses and wine glasses. That way of life is gone. The table in our tiny flat is too small to hold a vase of flowers, and as for candles, they’d be far too dangerous to use in a place with wall-to-wall carpeting.
At first it was a shock to walk into one of the restaurants and think, Whoinell are all these old white-haired people? Then we remembered that we ourselves are old. The exercise studio adjoining the restaurant is chock-full of walkers, rollators, and motorized scooters.
The time I thought I’d save not having to plan menus, shop for food, prepare and serve meals, and clear up afterwards is now consumed by simply trying to get dinner. To be sure of getting a seat, we have to show up in the bar of the restaurant at 4:45 so we can put our names down and wait to be summoned to a table. We always say “yes” when asked if we are willing to join others, as most tables seat four and saying “yes” will ensure being seated a bit faster. The conversation follows a pattern: “How long have you been here? Where did you move from? Do you have children in the area? Which clubs have you joined? What kind of work did you do before you retired?” That last question is the one my husband hates most of all as he worked as a bricklayer for a good part of his career.
Here we have a dedicated underground parking space for our car, which frees us from having to clean snow or dead leaves off it. Several campus shuttles transport residents between buildings, but the able-bodied can also walk indoors or outdoors between them. From our apartment it’s a quarter-mile, eight-minute walk to the main clubhouse, where the drugstore, gym, swimming pool, library, ceramics studio, day spa, and two of the restaurants can be found.
There is also a shopping shuttle that regularly conveys residents to selected stores off campus on different days of the week. Other “special trips” shuttles take residents to plays or operas in downtown DC or to fine restaurants in the Virginia countryside. The county library sends staff out here twice a month to bring library books the residents have selected, and to help people open memberships. As well there are movies, concerts, plays, bingo, parties, and all kinds of other amusements run by either the residents or the staff.
It’s natural to have second thoughts sometimes, and I do have them. Was it fair of me to take my husband away from the house he cherished? In some sense, transforming it was his life’s work. We started in 1976 with a three-bedroom, one-bath house with no garage, no fireplace, and an unfinished basement. We sold a house with an extra-long one-car garage, four bedrooms, three bathrooms (small but adequate), two family rooms, a living room, dining area, an enlarged, updated kitchen, and two wood stoves—a Franklin stove in the downstairs family room and a regular wood stove with a glass door in the upstairs family room. Over the years we added a screened porch and patio with a herb garden planter, vegetable beds, and a strawberry patch, as well as the apple trees we planted.
Was it fair of me to deprive the dog by moving him from a house that bordered on woods to apartment living? At our house he had an enormous fenced backyard to himself, with all kinds of the interesting sniffs so vital to a hound. We were visited not only by the usual squirrels, birds, rabbits, and chipmunks, but deer, a fox or two, a greedy groundhog that wanted to scarf down our vegetables, and the odd snake. Our beagle enjoyed sunbathing, rolling around in the grass, and escaping—when he could find a a way out—across the creek and into the woods. Now he has nothing but a boring courtyard and a series of not-very-interesting, sedate walks.
Pleasures now past: afternoon tea is no longer possible because we often have to go to dinner at the appalling hour of 5 p.m. At home we had tea anywhere between 3 and 4 p.m. There are no more long, luxurious, lavender-scented soaks in a bubble bath: we have no bathtub, only a large shower with a built-in seat. No more log fires in the wood stove, because we no longer have such a thing. No more wandering out to the garden to pick strawberries or raspberries, no more snipping a handful of herbs to season dinner. My husband misses barbecuing steak and corn on the cob on our backyard grill.
After we moved, at first I missed that feeling of utterly belonging to our neighborhood—of knowing exactly where my errand destinations were, knowing how long they would take, and then coming home to tea in a tidy house. We lived in that house for more than 41 years. Our children attended elementary school in the neighborhood. Many years later, our younger son’s daughter attended the same school as her father after he bought a house in the neighborhood where he grew up. For a couple of years I walked her to school from her family’s house and then walked her back to our house in the afternoons, where she would stay until her parents picked her up after work.
We now live in a bubble and sometimes I feel guilty about it. Why should we be free from want when many are struggling? But then I remember the years when I worked not only 40 hours, but overtime—all the midnighters, three ay-emmers, and all-nighters—because I had to, not because I wanted to. One whole summer went by without my being aware of it: after our team completed the project at the end of August, I walked around in a fog comparable to jet lag during the entire first week of September. My husband also worked overtime in his job as county building inspector. So yes, we are lucky to be here, but you might say we’ve earned it.
Frankly, I’ve hesitated for a long time about sharing this essay. Considering the horror of the plague raging around us, the misery endured by our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico, the people of the Virgin Islands, and the hapless Latino immigrants to our unwelcoming shores, everything I’ve written may sound like the whining of an overprivileged old woman. However, if it helps anyone to decide the next stage of their lives, I’m glad to offer it in the hope it will be received in the spirit intended.
Barky Manor spruced up for sale, February 2018