A few weeks ago, as we were preparing to leave home in Australia for our annual migration to Vancouver Island, I was chatting with a friend. I described my mother’s property in Nanaimo: right on the water, overlooking the incredibly beautiful Georgia Strait, mainland mountains looming in the distance, lush well-appointed gardens. The friend, who has observed our busy life on Mitchells Island, said, “You must look forward to getting away from it all.”
Given my description, she could be forgiven. But let me set the record straight. Sometimes a change is about as far from a rest as things can get.
Take this beautiful property overlooking Georgia Strait and zoom in on the bungalow that rests near the top of the cliff. You will find this house of ours agog with change.
Let’s start with Kyle. Remember him? He was hired last August to be a largely out-of-sight housemate/chauffeur/computer technician/eye-keeper-on for Mum after Rick and I left. Well, Kyle worked out very well. He was a wise, energetic, resourceful young man who could shrug off the challenges of his unusual living situation. The arrangement gave Mum independence—but by mid-winter she was complaining of being lonely. Fair enough, as providing companionship wasn’t in Kyle’s contract.
So Kyle put in his nine months, and, over long discussions, my daughter and her partner volunteered to take his place. Mum was initially radiant at the idea and we forged ahead. As you would: in theory, this is an arrangement created in heaven. Jenn and Colby are young and strong, with a highly supportive relationship. They will be working and out of the house most of the time. They are energetic and hard-working (they’ve cleared the gardens of weeds and debris, removed unwanted trees, trimmed overgrown trees and shrubs, removed hazards, helped clear out garages and sheds and the greenhouse). They are also cheerful, resilient and sensitive to the needs of others. I find them excellent companions. I’d have them as housemates in a minute.
But you might spot the flaw in the plan: far too much change. If you were watching over the house a few weeks ago, you could have found Kyle at his computer searching for a new place to live. You could see Rick and Heather, having yanked up their roots in Australia, working to transplant them to sunny Nanaimo. You could see Jenn and Colby leaving their jobs, a city they know inside out, a familiar apartment and their beloved friends—to come to a strange city in an area of relatively high unemployment, to caretake a big property and an unpredictable housemate. And you could see my mother, whose quiet house is suddenly filled to the brim with fast-moving people.
Change is everywhere, filling the space, reducing visibility, clogging the filters. This house was built 35 years ago by my father and mother, lived in exclusively by them for the next 21 years, then exclusively by my mother for the next 13. It has seen more change in the last month than most sedate old houses have to put up with in a decade.
I read today about China opening a copper tubing plant in Alabama. Now there’s a concept to mess with your head. Chinese workers are getting more expensive; US energy prices are falling; the Chinese have become welcome investors rather than communist infiltrators.
But those big changes—and they really are big changes—well, they’re at a safe distance and I can live with them. I can deal with Chinese factories in Alabama. But encountering an extra toothbrush in the bathroom, or hearing familiar footsteps and not being sure which version of my mother will come around the corner—that’s a challenge. And if it’s a challenge for me, can you imagine what it’s like for her?
If you’ve had oldies in your life, you are likely to have witnessed the effects of 90+ years of living on the human body and psyche: grumpy, less resilient, confused, not amenable to logic. The frontal lobes dry up and it’s game over for a cheery, positive outlook.
I had a father-in-law who had a long-term live-in caregiver, who along with his three daughters living nearby, treated him wonderfully—but no doubt he gave them a rough go in the last few of his 95 years. I have an aunt (blind and badly crippled by arthritis) who hasn’t said a kind word to her son in all the years since he helped move her from her house into a luxurious assisted-living facility. I have a cousin who, tag-teaming with her sister, puts in hours each day visiting and providing for their 90+ mother so that she could remain in her apartment (an arrangement that sadly has just been terminated by a broken shoulder). People go to great lengths to provide comfort for ageing family members, when nothing can really provide comfort.
A friend recently commiserated in an email, “It is a very difficult issue for all concerned. Having spent almost 20 years as a volunteer in aged care/respite I still have not seen the perfect model for people as they lose their independence, and often fail to recognise that their circumstances have changed.” That might not sound like good news, but I can take heart in it. There’s no magic bullet, she’s saying, so just do your best.
When we Shedders began discussing our joint-household project, we said, This will be good for us. The stimulus provided by dealing with continuous change will keep our brain cells young.
Thirteen years on, I’m not so sure anything can keep the brain cells young. Will we be less territorial when we are older, because we must learn to be easy with shared property and possessions? Will we remain more generous as we age, because we must daily practice compromise? Will we be less grasping about money because we pool some of our assets?
There’s no guarantee that these years of practice will do some good. My goal is that sometime in the distant future daughter Jenn will say, “Gosh, Mum, you’re flexible and good-natured!” I’ve never been a big fan of hope, but…here’s hoping!