My mother now lives in a place called The Village. It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child, but perhaps a village can be helpful at any age. It certainly seems our family requires the help of this village to care for our mother. She lives in the part of The Village labeled “assisted living,” which implies that she needs help breathing or maintaining a pulse. She does not. She does, however, need a level of intimate care that we, her six children, could no longer safely or ably provide.
My father died three years ago, and my mother lived with (and paid the mortgage for) one of her daughters. When that daughter was daunted by the daily demands of living with an incontinent, forgetful, 80-year-old woman with Parkinson’s disease, the decision was made to sell the house and use the proceeds to move my mother to The Village. This decision was not lightly made. It took a couple of years, several falls, many accusatory e-mails, a series of biting meetings and a visit from the police. My sister’s family is now an estranged branch of the family tree. You could say it did not go well.
When we visit our mother at The Village, we go to the right side of the building. The left side houses the folks who are still capable of “independent living,” although they too have no need to do any cooking or working or cleaning or gardening or driving or the many other tasks they accomplished on a daily basis when they were younger. I imagine that if you do not require the kind of assistance my mother does, living at The Village would be sort of like being on a cruise for the rest of your life, because on both sides of The Village, there are exercise classes, craft activities, poker, bingo, trivia games, an internet café, a pool, a movie theater, happy hours, special events like luaus, lectures, concerts, day trips, holiday celebrations, discussion groups and book circles—sometimes all in the same day. You can gauge an event’s popularity by the number of walkers parked just outside the venue.
Three meals a day, light on salt and sugar, are served in the dining room by waiters and waitresses, all of whom are candidates for sainthood. Several times a day, good-natured health aides bring around little cups of pills like hors d’oeuvres. On the assisted living side, the aides also dress the residents, shower them, change their soiled clothing and bedding, help them in and out of bed, bandage their scrapes, monitor their vital signs, escort them to the dining room when they get turned around and arrive promptly at the door when a summoning button is pushed. They are everywhere and unfailingly sweet. They network by walkie-talkie. The system works.
So my mother, after six months of residency, is comfortable, cared for, physically safe, mentally engaged and socially active. Her color and her mobility have improved. In some ways, she is part of an elder gang: she and her fellow inhabitants at The Village have formed a quasi-family of similarly challenged folks who exist on the edge of society. Sometimes when I visit—my mother has frequent visitors, unlike some of her new friends—I feel guilty that we did not simply absorb her into one of our homes. Three of my siblings live out of state, and the one who lives closest to our mother has two toddlers, which leaves the one who tried and failed to care for her and no longer speaks to anyone, and me.
I live about 100 miles to the north, and my mother often stated that she would not be content in my small, boring, cold-weather town—but still. I feel that I have failed to live up to the multigenerational ideal for a functional family, of providing a home where the wise grandmother enriches the daily life of her offspring’s family with wit and grace, of caring for an aging parent with the same love and attention with which she once cared for me. Instead, I have warehoused my mother.
And once again, God’s boundless sense of humor infuses my life with the last thing I had ever expected to happen: my mother, safely moved into an assisted living facility, needing help with the most unmentionable of personal tasks, has a beau. I’ll call him Jerome. The staff members are a bit flummoxed by this blossoming relationship, which they say has never come up on the assisted living side before. I infer from this that the independent living side is a regular Peyton Place. My mother and Jerome, who is a recent widower, spend a lot of time together at daily activities. She watches “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” in his room every night. They share snacks. They embrace and hold hands, and they kiss goodbye when I pick my mother up for an outing or an errand or a doctor’s appointment. To my dismay, and knowing full well I should be happy for my mother’s newfound companionship, I secretly compare Jerome to my dad and find Jerome lacking. I have sad insight into what it might feel like to be a child of divorce.
“What do you think of Jerome?” my mother asks me coyly, as if we were eighth graders together.
“He’s nice,” I say.
“He asked me to be his girlfriend,” she says.
“Well, I’m not going to call him Dad,” I tell her, and immediately feel bad. Why would I deny her the joy of Jerome? What is my problem? If I say I want my mother to be happy in her golden years, why am I resentful when she is? I am learning to see this experience as an opportunity for new growth in my spiritual development, for new acceptance of God’s presence in all things, for new depth to my soul.
My mother’s photo regularly appears in The Village’s monthly newsletter, often at Jerome’s side, always smiling and doing something entertaining. She is becoming a fixture there, in a way that she probably would not be in one of her children’s spare rooms. It is becoming her home, a home away from any home we ever shared with her, a home where we are visitors. I also watch her shrink, in body and in mind, as she travels the road of age and illness, and I wonder if we have done the right thing. She has the funds to afford another 10 years at The Village, at least, and we will worry about where she will live after that when the time comes. At that point our family will have to become the village she needs.