Retirement Living (An Amoral Fable)


Goofus and Gallant are old now. They each had a different idea of when middle-age began and where the transition to old age would be, but by the time they were 64 they had to agree they were no longer young.

Gallant was always more in touch with mainstream notions. He’d bought into the over-the-hill-at-40 birthday gear; he knew he crossed the middle line a quarter century ago. But it didn’t occur to him that he was at least a senior citizen, until he started looking into Medicare enrollment.

Goofus was relatively clueless. He missed marking his 40s or 50s as aging decades; it wasn’t until he began picking up bruises from he knew not where, and hanging onto them for weeks, that his own age clobbered him. “I don’t know when I attained actual adulthood,” he said to his wife, “but if I’d entered kindergarten at 50 I’d be a year past high school now. I’m old.”

The men were still in relatively good health. Gallant’s blood pressure was controlled with pills he’d been taking for decades, and his MD recently added statins to his daily dose. Gallant took two prescriptions and a dozen supplements. Goofus’s infirmities were all normal wear of bones and ligaments and tendons. As his doctor told him, “Your problems are mechanical.” Goofus stretched and iced. He sometimes took NSAIDs and he always enjoyed narcotics when he could get pills from friends. He maintained that vi- and oxy-codone didn’t relieve his pain, but they made it not obnoxious: interesting even.

They were in good enough health, in good enough marriages, with sufficient resources to face the next leg of their lives without desperation. Gallant was ready to retire. Goofus wanted to keep a hand in business but also wanted more time. He figured he might have another quarter century of productive effort in him; he wondered if he could decide on a whole new interest, now.

The thing they agreed about, regarding the next phase, were their plans to change residences. Their nests were empty and each had acquired the desire to reduce his number of possessions. Their houses were paid for and the real estate market favored sellers. They cleaned up their homes, tolerated the stagers, and soon found themselves landless and with ready cash.

So they looked around. Neither wanted to leave the area, but each wanted a smaller residence, something to share with spouse and with room enough for an occasional guest, but without extras like formal dining or living room or extensive gardens, and with medical facilities on hand or nearby.

It wasn’t hard for Gallant to find options. He and his wife toured four different retirement communities before agreeing on Lodge Estates. They decided that condo community was just about perfect for them. It housed 200 families and had a mini-hospital in its basement, next to the parking garage. Gallant liked that, and he also wanted to own his home; most of the other retirement situations he saw were rentals. The minimum entry age was 55, so the place wasn’t noisy or chaotic. And his wife liked all the cultural events; Lodge Estates ran movies and exercise classes and even bingo games, but it also bused residents to symphony, ballet, opera, speakers’ series. Gallant noted all the empty wine bottles in the recycle bins downstairs; he figured those were the best indication that the Estates would be homey for him.

They bought a 2-bedroom, 2-bath unit, and they adapted rather quickly to Lodge life. They so enjoyed the dining room that they rarely used their kitchen. Within a few months, their social life was almost exclusively contained in the complex.

Goofus didn’t find what he wanted when he looked. Quiet wasn’t the first priority for him and his wife. He figured he wasn’t seeking an actual retirement situation, and he became convinced of that when he visited Gallant. He thought Lodge Estates was attractive, in a sterile kind of way (all the halls were uniform, and what he saw of the unit interiors looked the same to him, except for the amount of possessions each contained), and that weirded him a bit. It was too organized. Too same. And while he didn’t argue with Gallant when his old friend asserted that most of the residents were fit and active, there was no avoiding the conclusion that Lodge Estates was clearly a last stop before the final decline. In a place filled with retirees, most of the table conversations were about end-stage illness. Regularly an ambulance pulled into the sweeping curved entrance and transported a resident to the real hospital, down the hill, and less than half of those transported ever made it back to the Estates.

“I don’t want to live in a ghetto,” Goofus declared then. “I don’t care how upscale it is; if it’s all old folks or all disabled or all Christian or all historians…I don’t care what the group is, but it isn’t enough for me. I want variety. I want a little noise.”

He and his wife spent nearly a year looking before they found a situation that suited them. From their temporary flat they explored all the area had to offer in small residences: condo developments, co-ops, apartments, and even cottages. Finally they bought into a 30-unit corner of quasi-cohousing (there was a big common dining area but most residents used their private kitchens). It wasn’t perfect but they liked the location, the size (big enough for diversity but small enough to know everyone), and the cooperative, car-independent atmosphere. But the price tag was high (except for a couple of required “affordable” units), so the residents tended to be oldish and the families small.

Goofus and his wife were happy in Swann Village. But the search triggered some ideas that led them to their next big project. They decided to spend their energy trying to create the housing situation that they’d been unable to find.

As they described it in their mission statement, American culture had taken a strange turn after WWII. That’s when suburbs were created. The American Dream was then embellished with the goal of a detached home for every family. Housing was built that featured sprawling ranch styles and cul-de-sacs. Communities were formed that facilitated car travel. Front porches gave way to fully-fenced private back yards. The old extended family, housed in a big residence or spread out in a small neighborhood, splintered and went its separate ways and acquired closets and garages and formal rooms that were rarely used.

Goofus and his wife weren’t trying for backwards. But they wanted to create places where folks would naturally congregate and relate to one another, and enrich each other with their differences. They wanted to mix kids with old people, disabled individuals with those not (yet) disabled, to allow communities to develop that would include wealthy and poor.

They haven’t been able to build yet, but they’re hopeful about the next decade. They have refined their ideas and collected some support. They figure their ideal development will house 35 families. Living units should range in size and price, to attract the diversity they seek. They understand that they have to go beyond required accessibility rules and make every unit visitable by any shaped body, and that’s made them learn about universal design. They call it “smart insides;” as they know, it’s not about ugly ramps or handrails – it’s about building right the first time, so you don’t have to tear apart to accommodate variety.

Now Goofus has a new career. He figures his attempts to offer a different type of retirement living will keep him busy for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, he’s fairly content in his new small home.

And Gallant likes his. He appreciates the Lodge facilities and he loves the order and quiet. But he understands Goofus’s choice. He and Goofus agree that it should be a matter of choice. Both have gotten old enough that each knows more than he ever thought he would about what’s true, and less than he ever thought he would about what’s right.

“Funny,” Goofus said to his oldest friend just last week, “how you have to be almost done with living before you learn to live and let live.”

This entry was posted in Fiction, Maeta's Fables, Universal Design. Bookmark the permalink.

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