Age-old problem: parents' care

The Middle Ages

June 08, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

Dudley Clendinen is a veteran journalist, and he knows a story when he sees one.

So, when it dawned on him that all he and his middle-aged friends were talking about was the latest crisis in the health and lives of their aging parents, he thought he might be seeing a theme.

When his own mother, whom he had gently persuaded to move into a retirement facility but who was so active at 80 that most pages on her calendar had multiple entries, suffered a stroke in 1998 -- from which she would only partially recover -- he felt like God himself had hired him to document what he describes as the "funny, sad, compelling soap opera" of the last decades of life.

For the next six years, the former New York Times reporter and editorial writer commuted between his home here in Baltimore and Canterbury Tower, a geriatric apartment building near his mother's home in Tampa, Fla. He even moved into an apartment at Canterbury, where he gently, sweetly chronicled her decline and the decline of her old friends.

He lived among what he describes as "a large, sweet, absentminded, slightly privileged, gently eccentric family" and the result is his new book, A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America.

It is a book that stands apart from so much of what is being written about aging in this country because of its confounding juxtaposition of screwball comedy and inexorably fading life; of the capacity for love in the human heart and the harsh rejection of anyone who is skittering down life's last slope too fast for the group.

Clendinen, who also worked for a time here at The Sun, has that charming Southern courtliness toward his mother -- he never refers to her in any way but "Mother" -- and toward the residents and staff of Canterbury. His narrative does not have the musty smell of desiccating old people, but rather the cloying scent of flowers in a fading garden.

His respect for the residents of Canterbury is profound: "A real nobility is required to go, day by day, through extending periods of uncertainty when you don't feel very good," he said during an interview in his sun-drenched, book-lined Baltimore apartment. "The salvation of this narrative is to learn how brave, dear, quirky, enduring and funny our parents and their friends can be."

My favorite chapter is Clendinen's description of the 1950s-style cocktail hour, a sacred tradition carried to Canterbury like a favorite family portrait.

But the cocktail hour becomes a dark comedy when dear Wilber can't hear his wife, Mary, shake her ice cubes for a refill -- Southern ladies would never call for another drink -- and by the time he gets to the kitchen, he can't remember the drink orders.

And Mary confides in dismay that she can't leave Wilber alone long enough to take the shuttle to the liquor store, and she can't imagine dealing with him without the solace of the cocktail hour.

Residents like Mary and Wilber accepted Clendinen and confided in him and allowed him to witness the candid moments of their decline because they never really thought of him as much more than the devoted son of one of their old friends.

But eventually they turned on his mother in the savage way creatures of the wild have of cutting out the weakest in the herd.

Among the rules at Canterbury, coats and ties are required in the dining room, but wheelchairs are forbidden, and a breach of that rule by the newly frail could bring about the furious rebuke of those who were determined not to see their own future.

It is a rule, Clendinen writes, that separates the mainly well from the mainly unwell in a place where the future and all its horrible compromises was studiously kept at bay. Everyone in Canterbury lived in the moment.

Thus, the fact that her dearest friends stopped visiting Clendinen's mother when she was transferred to the hospital wing of Canterbury is as chilling as it is completely understandable.

A Place Called Canterbury is a work of art, but Clendinen hopes that readers will gather "by osmosis" the elements of what might be "a good place" for their own parents. And he hopes that his book -- and the blog that he has begun -- will expand the frustrating conversations he and his friends have been having about their aging parents and provide some answers -- or at least some comfort.

And what about Clendinen himself? He is in his mid-60s.

"That's the other conversation us aging children are having with each other. I must confess that the idea of retirement or post-retirement unsettles me. I don't know what it will look like.

"I had always assumed that I would go to live in Canterbury. I enjoy it so much there. But then it occurred to me that what I enjoyed were the people, and they will be gone.

"It will be my friends that I will be living with, and that would make me feel old."

For more from Clendinen and his book, "A Place Called Canterbury," go to his blog, whattodoaboutmother.blogspot. com.

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