Some of my readers have a dim view of assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. Their opinions are based on the experiences of friends and relatives. They’re not keen on old age, either.
Dudley Clendinin, in his book A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America, presents a more nuanced view of both assisted living and old age. The book is based on his experiences at Canterbury Tower, a “life care” community here in Tampa Bay. His mother moved to Canterbury after the death of her husband, and lived there for 13 years. She needed nursing care for almost ten of those years. Through that decade, Clendinin stayed at Canterbury on and off, first in his mother’s apartment, then renting a guest room, and finally staying in one of the resident’s spare bedrooms (she was glad for the company). He was in his 50s; the average age at Canterbury was 86.
The book is a fascinating catalog of the past and present lives of the residents and staff. Through their stories, Clendinin chronicles the social and intellectual life at Canterbury, as well as the sometimes sad, sometimes funny aspects of aging. He writes about his mother’s excellent care, and the staff’s obsessive attention to detail. [I’ve toured Canterbury, and talked with people who live there, and was impressed by the staff’s kindness and efficiency.]
If there’s a dark side to the story, it’s the sharp dividing line between those in the independent living portion of Canterbury and those needing more care. When his mother has a stroke, and is moved to the nursing wing, some of her friends avoid her. After all, the emphasis at Canterbury is on living, Clendinin writes. No wheelchairs [and therefore no people who need wheelchairs] are allowed in the dining room, perhaps because that’s the way the residents want it.
Although Clendinin talks about “the New Old Age’”, there’s no denying death, even at Canterbury. Some of the residents he writes about die during his long stay there, and their bodies are whisked out the back door into unmarked vans. And as good as life there is, it’s no fix for dementia. One of the stories woven around his mother’s tale is that of a man who develops dementia. Some residents feel he should not be in the independent living area. Towards the end of the book, he’s spirited away to the nursing wing, while his wife remains in their apartment.
A Place Called Canterbury is a good read, and provides a thoughtful view of aging and eldercare.