Open Book

Everyday Heroes

Witnessing the strength and beauty of old age

Eric E. McCollum, Ph.D.
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From the May/June 1994 issue

New York: Simon & Schuster
669 pages, $24.50

Boston: Houghton Mifflin
352 pages, $22.95

WHEN MY PARENTS COULD CONVINCE me to make the trip, it was mostly the chance to log some miles behind the wheel of the family car that drew me along. It didn’t matter that my father snored in the seat beside me and that my mother kept a close eye on the speedometer; at 16 years old, the 200-mile trip across the rolling hills and two-lane roads of northern

Missouri was as exciting as Le Mans. But there was no champagne waiting at the finish line, only an elderly woman strapped into her wheelchair at the entrance to the nursing home where my grandfather lived.

She was there each time we came, and always reached for us as we passed, grasping, desperate, yet unaware of who we were. Once inside, old men hobbled down the halls leaning on their canes and staring wordlessly at us as we went to my grandfather’s room. Pale, inert forms lay still in darkened rooms along the corridor, the outlines of medical equipment visible in the dusky light. Though I had yet to read Dante, in my 16-year-old heart, visits to my grandfather felt like a descent into some circle of Hell.

It was in one such warehouse for failing bodies and despairing souls a nursing home in Massachusetts named “Linda Manor” after the developer’s daughter that Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder spent a year, gathering the material for Old Friends. With those remembered visits to my grandfather as my only guide, I picked up Old Friends wondering what could be of interest in a nursing home. Kidder’s answer is unequivocal: “What I saw inside Linda Manor was routine heroism. The old are routinely heroic as they struggle to preserve their dignity.”

The centerpiece of Old Friends is the growing friendship between Joe Orchio and Lou Freed. Their many differences make them unlikely friends anywhere other than Linda Manor. Lou is 90, Joe is 72. Lou worked blue-collar jobs all his life; Joe was a chief probation officer and, ultimately, finished law school at night. Lou is gentle and considerate; Joe is passionate and gruff. Thrown together as roommates because neither can afford a private room, they begin, haltingly, to get to know one another through the customary male parlance of sports and work, and end up becoming devoted to each other. Joe and Lou approach their friendship slowly. Early on, they are respectful of one another’s privacy, leaving more unsaid than said. At Linda Manor’s New Year’s Eve party, for example, Lou leaves the room when memories of his dead wife arise. He would rather cry alone than in front of Joe, who finds his friend’s tears disconcerting. Throughout Old Friends, we watch Lou and Joe develop a strong connection to one another, sometimes by talking over difficult things, but often simply by being together.

My grandfather moved to a nursing home in order to rest. After a lifetime of work, he said he’d earned it. Joe and Lou give us a different view of old age. Neither is content to give up his involvement in the world around him. Lou makes regular inspections of Linda Manor’s facilities, pointing out loose railings or burned-out light bulbs to the maintenance man. Joe worries about Lou’s health and urges him to take it easy on his exercise bike, not to try to be a “he-man.” When Lou ignores this advice and develops a blister that doesn’t heal for weeks, Joe nurses him through it. Both write cards to soldiers fighting in the Gulf War, and Lou is the first person at Linda Manor to tie a yellow ribbon to his cane. And, using humor to fend off the indignities of nursing home care, both Joe and Lou love to tease the nurse’s aide who comes daily to record in the “BM Book” whether or not their bowels have moved that day. “Have yours?” Joe always asks her.

Other people come and go in Old Friends. Eleanor, an actress, organizes plays starring the patients and staff of Linda Manor, but eventually finds the place too dull, and heads off to another nursing home in California to be closer to her daughter and to organize grander productions. Earl, a retired bank vice president, arrives after a heart attack has left him too sick for his wife to care for at home. The abrupt change from an active retirement filled with travel and golf to a stagnant existence at Linda Manor is shattering, and Earl is unable to adjust; he ignores the other residents, withdraws into himself and begs his wife to take him away. We eavesdrop as he tells his doctor, “Listen, Doc, I’m not a kid anymore. I want to know where I stand.” We hear the doctor respond that a fatal heart attack could happen at any time, and that it is unlikely Earl will be alive in six months. We watch Earl struggle, and fail, to maintain his composure and accustomed competence in the face of this death sentence. Finally, when he cautiously raises the issue of his impending death with his wife, she reassures him that she can stand the loss of another husband (she was widowed once before). The next day, Earl dies, released from a world that no longer offered him an acceptable life.

I found myself thinking about Joe and Lou for days after I finished Old Friends, inspired by their courage in the face of what would send many people into despair. Joe and Lou nudge us to think of the residents of nursing homes not as hapless victims of age, but as heroes who battle to maintain their dignity and humanity. The stories of those who succeed inspire us to see the strengths in age, not only the infirmities. The friendship of Joe and Lou is one such strength, nurtured daily with humor, compassion and grit. “Come on, Lu-Lu” Joe teases at the end of Old Friends as visitors leave and the two men are left alone on a winter evening, “It’s time to go upstairs and get some pills.”

WHERE TRACY KIDDER OFFERS US a quiet tale of wisdom, humor and courage, Betty Friedan, in The Fountain of Age, issues a call to arms. The pervasive myths about old age constrict human identity and freedom as powerfully as does the feminine mystique, Friedan tells us, and she proceeds to challenge the old saws about old people head-on. Her thesis is that old age need not be a time of chronic illness, loss and decrepitude, requiring the constant and increasingly high-tech ministrations of a burgeoning geriatric health-care industry. Rather, she declares, the so-called declining years really can be a time of vigorous social activity, renewed professional involvement and awakened freedom to be oneself. “I have refused,” Friedan writes, “to let myself, or other women or men after 65, be defined as objects of ‘care,’ as at 351 refused to let women be defined as sex objects.” While such single-mindedness must be the basis for any social change agenda, it comes at a price. It is easy to admire the verve and determination with which Friedan delivers her manifesto, just as it is easy to agree with the fundamental truth in her message. She marshals evidence to dispute common myths about old age that sexuality shrivels up, that menopause is a calamity, that intelligence stagnates and that the body inevitably falls apart. She wonders why so little attention is paid to men’s shorter life expectancy and suggests that it is a public health problem deserving study. In her view, the critical variable is a society that allows men very little identity outside of work and career, doing and striving in the public arena, and doesn’t prepare them for life in the private arena where much of the satisfaction of old age is found.

Along the way, she tells inspiring stories of people like Patricia “Sam” Udall, who joined the Peace Corps at 57 and returned at 61 and started a new career. And countering the idea that old age brings social and emotional isolation, she recounts her continuing relationships with old friends from the commune she lived on many years ago; these longtime connections have become her “family of choice” on important occasions and her refuge in times of crisis. Finally, Friedan writes about her participation in an Outward Bound program for people over 5 5. Undertaken with both excitement and trepidation, the wilderness experience showed Friedan both her strengths and her wisdom in knowing her limits. Her ability to say “no” to the rappelling exercise is as much a strength as her ability to spend 24 hours alone in the woods.

It is hard to fault such examples of self-fulfillment. Nevertheless, I found The Fountain of Age oddly unsatisfying, and finishing it was a chore. For a study of a pervasive social issue that presumably affects us all (everybody who lives long enough grows old, after all), the book seems too narrow in its focus. Most of the people Friedan describes have had the good fortune, good health and even perhaps the good genes, that allow them to evade, temporarily at least, the depredations of old age. Most of them already had built successful careers before making their mid- or late-life vocational changes and could launch themselves into new life orbits from the comfortable cushion of economic security. Further-.more, most are blessed with relatively (sometimes outstandingly) good health; none appear to suffer from the effects of life-long poor nutrition, grueling physical labor or inadequate medical care.

But what does old age look like to the man who spent his youth as a coal miner and now, struggling to breathe through blackened lungs, lives hooked to an oxygen tank? Or a woman who raised a large family in poverty while spending 10 hours a day doing housework for other, richer women? How do old people cope who live alone in a furnished room scraping by on a thin Social Security check and one meal a day? And what of the million or so inhabitants of nursing homes, many simply warehoused because of the severity of their illnesses or the lack of a family to care for them? We don’t hear any of these voices in The Fountain of Age. Indeed, “successful” aging has a remarkably healthy, middle-class face.

My deeper concern, though, is that by describing what old age can be, Friedan comes perilously close to prescribing what old age should be. Even when celebrating the many paths people take as they age, her real enthusiasm seems to be for those who continue to achieve, be active and push ahead into new territory. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being active, and Friedan’s is a vision of aging we have not often had. But where is there time for enjoying some of the ordinary things that have sustained us over a lifetime the satisfying, if not glamorous, routine of a job, the pleasure of bowling with friends, of puttering in the garden or enjoying grandchildren? More important, is there any place in Friedan’s vision of old age for making peace with those realities that our culture, with its insistence on “having it all,” would prefer to avoid regret for chances not taken, good deeds not done and love not generously given? All of us live with regret, and to ignore that fact is to make old age simply a mad dash away from the looming inevitability of death.

It is, finally, Friedan’s avoidance of death itself that most troubles me about The Fountain of Age. Friedan too often succumbs to the temptation to make old age another version of youth, another time when horizons are unlimited. Sadly, it just isn’t so. Death cannot be denied; it imposes limits whether we like them or not. While Friedan has little to say about this subject, I began to wonder if the “rebirth” described by so many of the people in her book didn’t come precisely from a confrontation with death and a willingness to embrace its limits. Sadness, loss, even rage at the limits of life can fuel the creativity in old age that Friedan so painstakingly describes. To leave those feelings unsaid, however, is to tell only half the story, and threatens to turn The Fountain of Age into an echo of the Fountain of Youth a mythical, magical source of renewal sought by generations of explorers but still undiscovered, even to this day.

Eric E. McCollum, Ph.D., is the clinical director of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Virginia Tech in Falls Church.