Senior Momentum - October 2011
Years ago I had the privilege of studying Semantics with Dr. S. I. Hayakawa who was teaching at San Francisco State University. Dr. Hayakawa could get inside a word and examine its subtleties more thoroughly than anyone I’d encountered. He held a unique perspective on almost everything, and he made us think carefully about the words we chose, and the effect our words could have on others. He held our hopeful writers’ feet to the fire!
“Home” is a good example. When circumstances would arise that made moving necessary, I explained to my young children my belief that “our home” was what we brought to and created within any house we might live in; home was relative.
For many of us, when we think of home, we remember one place where we spent most of our young life with our family, (followed by a few transitional abodes), then another place where we settled for most of our adulthood.
The concept of home is complex and powerful; and leaving a lifelong home late in life is among the most wrenching transitions – especially for very frail elderly who can no longer be safely self-sufficient.
(It is so tempting to use the term ”independent” – but when I am tempted to use that word, Dr. Hayakawa’s face appears in my head with his enigmatic smile, and I can almost hear his voice saying: … are you sure that’s what you mean? Is anyone truly “independent”?)
What a dilemma for both aspects of the situation – the caregiver charged with the responsibility of a loved one’s later years, and the elder who knows the time has come to begin to relinquish control and settle for some influence, but who is mightily resistant.
If we are fortunate enough to achieve the status of “elderly,” it is inevitable that we’ll encounter the realities of declining self-sufficiency. We will need help! We may eventually need dedicated care and oversight, and we may need to leave a beloved home we can no longer manage in, alone.
Leaving home late in life is so much more than just moving; it’s a reality check, a preamble to closure; it might even be the first time one really confronts their mortality! Imagine the fear and confusion for a person who can no longer comprehend why they are being moved away from all they know and love – a person who cannot understand where their garden or favorite room has gone.
Leaving home because you wanted to was so exciting at eighteen or twenty with the world at your feet! You were leaving home to live away at college, join the service, live with the one you loved, get married, or just travel! But having to move from your home, with sadness and fear, because you can no longer function there safely, is quite another matter.
Home is partly a state of mind, and partly the sense of a specific place with its smells, its details, views and memories. Having to leave against one’s wishes must feel like forever has just arrived and you can’t quite see tomorrow. It is a tearing of real fabric because there are parts that can only be remembered … that can’t be brought along.
The experience of leaving a long-time home can break a heart in two – or open a new door of relief and unburdening. How it goes depends on the stewardship of that delicate passage. The irony (it seems to me) is in the coincidence that just when we need that familiar security the most, is often exactly when we must give it up.
One can only hope to do it with grace.