The Octogenarian: 6. The Community

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear right from the start. ‘The Community’ is not the same thing as ‘The Home.’

‘The Home’ was a fictionalized fancy that their friends had created as a caricature of what life would be like, years down the line, when they were all doddering nonagenarians, loosing their faculties, in need of assistance with their activities of daily living. Whenever someone misinterpreted someone else or made a flagrant error that left everyone in stitches, the inevitable cry went up, “This is what it will be like in The Home!”

Although the Memory Unit was a locked wing for those whose dementia was further advanced and could have served as the template for their image of The Home, The Community was not the same thing as The Home.

No, The Community was a real place and a reasonable option for older folks desirous of finishing out their days in comfort. 

It was Sally who first suggested they move there from the apartment building which had become their home when they downsized upon turning 70. They first applied for admission 15 years ago and finally made the move just 5 years ago.

They had loved their old place with its convenient location, ridiculously high ceilings, indoor parking, manicured grounds, outdoor pool and, most of all, residents of all ages, even though they rarely interacted with any of them. 

The decor of the apartment was a little quirky…no…make that borderline bizarre…what with the kites they suspended from those too-high ceilings with transparent fishing line, the bathroom shower curtain of a Renoir painting that they hung on the wall in the living room, and the half dozen solar powered revolving crystals on the floor-to-ceiling windows that sent rainbows twirling about their heads until noon on cloudless days. 

As much fun as they had there, they knew even before they moved in that it wouldn’t be their final destination. As wonderful as it was not having to shovel snow or deal with a leaky roof or climb a flight of stairs to go to bed, they realized that at some point, they would appreciate being somewhere that provided even more support, like meal preparation, heavy cleaning of their living quarters, and shuttle service to the nearby mall and cultural events. They also knew that they needed to make preparations for when their physical and mental capacities dwindled even further, necessitating their move into assisted living and, ultimately, the real-life version of The Home. And they needed to make sure that the one who survived the other would be ok.

The Community, in addition to its 256 accessible and trip-proof living units, had every amenity imaginable gracing its 87 acres: 2 heated indoor pools (one for water aerobics), miles and miles of manicured walking trails, a pond stocked with both trout and koi with a fantastic fountain that pulsed along with the sounds of classical favorites along with full-orchestra covers of hits from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s emanating from hidden surround-sound speakers, weekly maid service, two nice restaurants, a clubhouse with meeting rooms that hosted gatherings of enthusiasts of every interest imaginable, a larger auditorium for concerts, movie screenings and guest lecturers, golf cart stations scattered around campus where you could borrow and drop off a cart when you didn’t feel like walking, a local shuttle to the supermarket and other nearby attractions, its own security system with computerized wristbands for every resident that alerted the on-site medical staff if someone had fallen or was in the midst of a medical emergency, and more. Much much more.

It was utopian. Optimists saw it as the perfect place to enjoy their later years. Pessimists saw it as the place where people who could afford it went to die.

Alex was somewhere in the middle. He had never trusted utopias. Something always bad happened with them, or there was some dirty little secret that turned their heaven-on-earth into hell-on-wheels. Think about it. As believers will tell you, right from the beginning, Eden had its snake. There were any number of examples from literature to the movies that delivered the same message about perfect places: Shangri-la, Brigadoon, Xanadu, Westworld, The Stepford Wives, The Prisoner, The Truman Show, Wall-E, and Pleasantville, to name a few. So Alex figured The Community had its dirty little secret, too, but he hadn’t yet figured out what it was.

For him, the inevitable transitions from independent living to assisted living to memory care were how he would mark the stages of a slow death. He knew that by accepting the perks of each stage, he would be ushering in a shrinking world, inhabiting a lesser world than the one he had enjoyed just a decade ago. Far from the limitless horizons of his youth, his world was in the process of closing in on him, inexorably, until both he and it would disappear. It’s as if he were being sucked into his own personal black hole.

He was 87 but had yet to accept the fact that he was old. Whenever he attended an SRO concert in the auditorium, he would look around and wonder what he was doing there with all those old people.  He knew that he wouldn’t forgive himself if he ever admitted that he was one of them. Clearly, his once-vanquished outsider spirit was burning brightly once more.

He didn’t mention any of this to Sally, or anyone else, for that matter. He covered himself pretty well. If you watched him going through his daily routine, you’d never guess he harbored any misgivings about the place. He met people, he made friends, he played his recorder in a baroque ensemble and watched University of Connecticut women’s basketball games on tv with the UConn Club.

It would take the all-seeing eye of a Hercule Poirot to recognize the signs of his resistance. For one, he continued to cook dinners three nights a week even though dining at either of the restaurants was included in the package they had purchased.

For the first 3½ years they were there, he avoided the manicured trails and instead jogged through real woods in a nearby park where the dirt paths threw tree roots and stones and wet leaves at him. His risk of falling was high and, to make matters worse, his emergency wristband was of no use to him there, but he didn’t care. Instead of being anxious, he thrilled to the rush of independence he felt every time he went.  

And although he would deny it if you asked him, his name change wasn’t just for shits and giggles or to shed the baggage of a name that he had never embraced. In some small way, it made him, Wayne, feel less visible to the powers that controlled The Community. It made him feel more like an undercover agent and less susceptible to their manipulations.

Although Alex couldn’t quite yet put his finger on it, there was something about The Community that was not just fine with him.