Trying to get along

April 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

 “I really like community. That’s what I like best”, says Carmen, a 79-year old activist with deep green eyes and grace in all her gestures. We are sipping a tisane in her immaculate living room in her one-bedroom apartment. Carmen moved in a building for seniors a few years ago. Before she lived in an apartment outside a senior complex in a town nearby. Of her previous apartment she says “I never hardly knew my neighbors. There wasn’t the community room. There wasn’t an area where we could meet. There wasn’t anything to bring us together.”

 Proud of her relentless commitment for social justice, Carmen tells me of the sense of community in her building: “we’re really trying to get along.”

 I ask Carmen, “Why do I need to live in a building with only people of a certain age to feel community? What do you think about that?” She replies,

“Well, I do think about that. I do miss having children around.[…] I’ve always had younger friends. Ever since I was in my 30’s. […] So, yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard. But I think that it’s much easier to have community [here], probably I think it’s easier to have a sense of community in being old. The other thing about being old an in a place like this is, when you live in an apartment house with young people or mixed, like where I lived before, they’re just waiting to get a better place. […] They were just waiting to get enough money to buy a house or a condo, or to finish school so they could move away. So there wasn’t any feeling of commitment, or continuity. So [in] a place like this, we’re going to be here until we die or we go into nursing homes.”

Overlapping this sense of shared destiny – this sense of “continuity” – standsCarmen’s worry “that the money will run out before I die” and her concern for a daughter suffering substance abuse.  These pressures transform her group of friends in the senior center into a haven. Besides, even as a committed radical activist, the word“segregation” does not ring a bell to her. I ask whether she feels segregated or isolated from the rest of society.

“No, I don’t. No, I don’t. And I think it’s only because I’m so happy to have found my group. I mean, if I wanted to go out and be in a more mixed environment, I might find it hard, but I haven’t thought that once. I go to things, little concerts [..]. And then when I’m with my family, my children, and with grandchildren of different ages. But this is better. [..]It’s more important for me to have this kind of place where I am with people who are dealing with the same thing in their lives, too.”

 In the early 70s, sociologist ArlieHochschild in The Unexpected Community was the first to speak of the conviviality that could exist in building for seniors. In the preface to her book, she writes: “ I hope housing officials read the book too, since I would like to persuade them to build more of the kind of low-income housing for the old described here.” Do we share Hochschild’s hope?  Are most of us headed to live in older age in buildings with the company of our contemporaries?
Is this the best alternative?

This story was published in the newsletter of Planning for Elders.


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