While casting about for material for these columns, I read Dudley Clendinen's A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America, about his mother's last years living in an assisted living institution in Tampa, Florida. Clendinen came to my attention on the occasion of his moving and dignified description in the New York Times of his own descent into neuro-muscular failure due to A.L.S. -- Lou Gehrig's disease. Clendinen, a former national correspondent and editorial writer for the paper, also happens to be gay, though neither of these writings that delve into human intimacies make a point of that identity.
Canterbury is fascinating; if any reader is at all interested in assisted living communities or has friends living in them, I can highly recommend it. Clendinen spent long periods in residence; the product is indeed "tales" of ongoing life drifting toward death. Some stories are sure to delight and illuminate some corners we might not expect access to: relations with and among the staff; sexual outlets; how this community experienced and recovered from 9/11. It is full of gentle but wise observations; here's a sample:
In order to write this book, Clendinen begins with an extraordinarily lucid description of what exists in the way of housing options for elders. Here he is a straight-up journalist doing a terrific job of exposition. I'm taking the liberty of passing on excerpts from it here because I know how well it contextualized these possibilities for me and I hope it might do the same for others.
Most people aren't going to this last kind of facility, but I appreciated the clarity of this explanation.
It's not clear to me what the new federal health reform law will mean to these arrangements, although apparently existing nursing homes are complaining that they'll be required to offer their employees health insurance. I'm unsympathetic. We ought to be able to do better than to expect elder care to be solely the work of the underpaid and uninsured.