My senior year at Carleton I had a single room on the first floor of Evans dorm. It was probably 10 feet wide and 14 feet long. It held my bed, desk, dresser, stereo, oversized arm chair, television, and an ever increasing collection of books. What didn’t fit in the room was piled in the tiny closet near the door. Floor space was limited to a narrow passage from the door to the desk and around the foot of the bed. There was a single narrow window that looked out over Evans field and the arboretum beyond. It was compact, cozy, and everything I needed was right there. I spent a lot of time avoiding responsibility and “real life” in that room.
Today Dennis and I went to Iowa, Charles City, to see his mother in her new room at the Starr Home, a small independently run assisted living establishment.
Who knew old people live in dormitories.
Elaine’s room, a single room with a small bathroom attached is no bigger than my Evans room. The furniture arrangements are slightly different, but the floor space is very familiar. This lovely 84 year old woman is living in a dorm room.
There is a dining room down the main hallway. There is a lounge opposite the dining room. All meals are served and eaten on a rigid schedule. Elaine has a tiny regfrigerator in her room, on top of her dresser (dorm stlye)- for anything she might want to eat between meals. Her room is cleaned weekly, and someone does her laundry. She is responsible for showing up at meals and taking her medications. That is all.
I was 21 when I lived in the dorm. I had just enough stuff to fill that room and little else. Elaine has lived her whole life in full size homes with many rooms and spaces for memories, mementos, and moving around. She has reduced her life to one room, a few pictures, a few books, a display case of special tresures, and a television.
My dorm room was cluttered and generally in a state of chaos. Elaine’s room is scrupulously neat and organized. It is the pared down version of her life. Everything that didn’t fit has been sold or given away. There is nothing extraneous. When she moved out of her last house she put her few remaining possessions and herself in storage at the Starr Home. She hopes to live at the Starr Home until she dies. No one speaks of the nursing homes, although everyone knows residency at the Starr Home is contingent on medical conditions.
The Starr Home is a very well maintained facility, the meals are well prepared and nutritous. The staff is friendly and attentive. The residents are treated with respect and humor. It is a pleasant place.
There are eleven people living at the Starr Home. The average age is around 80 years. One woman we met has ten children; scattered all over the world. Another man is all alone; the last living member of his family. The residents sit in their rooms with the doors ajar, waiting for mealtime. Sometimes they play cards in the lounge. They watch television, read books, and occasionally entertain visitors. They all have fascinating stories. Stories about how they lived, thrived, survived. They seem content. They have no place to go, nothing to do. They have been and done everything they set out to be and do.
In college, living in my dorm room I often felt I was removed from the real world. Content, comfortable, and waiting; waiting to begin living. At the Starr Home I saw people, content, comfortable, and alone, waiting for the end.
Is that all there is?