After Maria had hip surgery, at age 87, and couldn’t live in her own home anymore, her daughter, Andrea, convinced her to move across the country to live in a senior facility near Andrea. But Maria, who was born in Poland, was never able to make friends at the facility. Back in Chicago, full of transplanted Poles, most people understood her thick accent. But in the Mountain West, with few people from her native land, her speech was unfamiliar, and residents at her senior facility avoided Maria because they couldn’t understand her.
Normally a happy person, Maria soon descended into depression. Even with a daughter nearby, she was lonely. She missed her friends back in Chicago, her favorite Polish restaurants and the church she had attended much of her life.
I think of Maria when my friends talk about moving once they retire or get older, either to a place that has a better climate (warmer, with less rain and snow), that’s cheaper to live or is closer to their children, who hopefully will take care of them in their old age.
It’s not an easy decision. On the one hand, living near your daughter or son means there will always be someone who can help with things you can no longer do, like drive you to the doctor; and you have family to spend with on the holidays. But on the other hand, you leave the place where you have old friends and you know your way around town; your doctor is familiar with your medical history without having to look at your charts; and you know all the checkers at the grocery store. If you leave your hometown, you go someplace where you have to start over again, where you know no one except your children—and possibly grandchildren.
Having been lucky enough to live in the same town for more than 50 years, I increasingly appreciate all the connections I’ve made: not just friends but a whole network of people from various parts of my life. If my dentist retires, I can call on my network for recommendations for a new one. Over 50 years, I discovered the best hiking trails, the restaurant with the best enchilada, the best repair shop for my Subaru. It’s only with my old friends that I can lament the passing of our favorite burger joint or remember the time 100-mph winds blew off a roof in Boulder.
It’s a web of connections that would be impossible to create if I moved someplace for the last years of my life. Yet I understand older adults who fear being alone and helpless as they lose both physical and mental abilities. There’s a comfort in knowing your child will be there if you need her.
I don’t know the answer, and it’s probably a different decision for each person. But I think of a story my aunt told me of her grandfather. He and his wife (my great grandparents) lived with his daughter and her husband (my grandparents) on the second floor of a two-flat apartment building on the north side of Chicago. After his wife died, my great-grandfather would come down to the first-floor apartment, where my aunt and uncle were raising a family of five.
Then in his 80s, my great-grandfather was too frail to actively participate in most of the family activities. But he was happy to just be around his family: listening to the conversations, watching my aunt make dinner for her family and enjoying his great-grandchildren as they played.
I know that way of life—of generations living together—is long gone. Yet increasingly I think it’s better to keep those old connections —both to people and places—as long as we can. They’re not easily replaced.