Good-Bye to the Old Neighborhood

When I was growing up, in the fabled ‘50s, our neighborhood was full of big families—five or more children—including ours. There must have been at least 50 children in a one-block area, so anytime I stepped outside, I was sure to see kids on the streets riding bikes or in the fields behind our houses playing catch or hide-and-seek. Not only did all the children play with each other, the parents partied together on Saturday nights in basement bars.

Although that world is long gone, I still find myself surprised at the fast pace of change. Or maybe it’s that I choose to remain oblivious until something smacks me in the head, like overhearing a comment from the realtor showing the house next door—a comment that reveals I’m older than I want to think.  

When a friend and I moved into our subdivision, some 25 years ago, we were among the younger people. On either side of us were older couples, maybe in their 60s, while we were in our late 40s. Gradually younger families started moving in, but there was still a balance between the older residents—who raised their children here and formed a community—and the new ones with young children.

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Aging in Place

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you feel truly old. The message that people over 60 are extra vulnerable and should stay home is being said loudly, clearly and repeatedly. In Scotland, adults over 70 are being told not to leave their homes for 12 weeks. Locally, on Next Door, the social media platform for neighborhoods, younger people are posting reminders to check on their elderly neighbors and get groceries for them. Meanwhile, grocery stores are letting seniors shop an hour before the stores open to the general public.

On the one hand, I’m grateful that people are concerned, but there’s a part of me that wants to protest: I’m still strong and independent; I’m not frail or helpless. This week, I shoveled snow from my driveway. I can hike 2-3 miles a day, lift a kayak onto the roof of my car, prune my trees and chop up the wood. So it feels strange to be lumped suddenly into a category of people who are vulnerable to not just getting sick but dying. And it feels just as odd to be lumped into any category, as if all older adults are the same.

Obviously there is a wide range of differences between those who are 75 and still ski (like a friend of mine does) and those who are 65 but overweight and sedentary. But in this frightening pandemic, there is no room for subtlety; urgency requires a sledgehammer rather than a fine tool to figure out who is the most vulnerable. It’s a scientific fact that our immune systems get weaker as we age.

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Leaving Home

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.

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