Back in the last half of the 1980’s and in to the 1990’s, there was a television show called “The Golden Girls”. Starring four of the best American actresses in comedy, the series told the stories of their lives post-husbands and child rearing as they shared a house together. More recently, the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” stars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda as two recently divorced elder women who end up sharing a house after their husbands announce their 40-year love affair and begin a life together as a couple. While the Golden Girls were certainly a statement of the socio-political atmosphere of the late 80’s/ early 90’s, Grace and Frankie are two 21st Century women who represent the baby boomer generation as we are today.
There is actually a term for those of us who have no partners and our children are grown and living far away: Elder Orphans. There are many communities both online and in reality that are centered on elders who have chosen to combine their strengths with others and continue their lives living independently, but not alone.
I am one of them.
A few years ago, I was in need of a place to live for a few months while I transitioned from being a spa consultant back to teaching. As a consultant, I traveled so frequently that I only needed to rent a room to come home to every few weeks. Teaching five days a week would necessitate a more stable housing situation. As I settled into my new routine, I was in need of a place to stay while I found permanent housing. A former client of mine, for whom I had done some long term dog-sitting, offered her extra rooms to me.
When she first made the offer, I suggested that she take a few weeks and give it some thought. I was not certain whether or not Marsha would feel comfortable with my energy in the house. As it has been all my life, I am the more “out there” personality, and as quiet and reserved as she seemed to be, I was afraid that she would feel overwhelmed by my presence. Later on, when she re-affirmed the invitation, I invited her to come see the room where I was staying when I was in town so she could get a sense of what it would be like. She walked in, and to my great surprise was delighted with the bright colors, the veritable jungle of houseplants and the overloaded bookshelves. And so, a week later I brought all that, and my energy, into her home in which she had been living alone for seven years after the death of her husband. I said, “I’ll only be six months or so”. That was four years ago.
I taught an advanced Associate Degree in Massage Therapy and Bodywork training program, driving the hour-and-a-half commute each way, four days a week. On the weekends, I began the search for an apartment nearer to the school. I have always loved teaching. It is both exciting and rewarding to me to watch students blossom into actual massage therapists. I loved keying in to each individual’s way of learning both concrete and sometimes very esoteric information, and guiding them to feel the body’s response to what they do in a session. As circumstances have unfolded for me in other times and places, the overriding corporate mindset of the school began to erode the experience of being able to teach in the best way that I could. As that particular mindset usually dictates, money became more important than substance. Mindful of the changing paradigm at the school, I slowed my housing search and waited to see how things were going to settle out. It’s a good thing that I waited. A significant managerial shift at the school took away the capability I’d had to write and teach courses that were forward-thinking. I was being forced to teach in ways that were outdated and mundane. I was admonished to pass students who were clearly unqualified psychologically to become Massage Therapists. The joy in the teaching was gone. When, after six months, the long commute and teaching needed to come to an end, Marsha was supportive of my decision to fully retire and offered me a long-term living situation in her home.
What has happened in the meantime has been pretty remarkable. During the passing months, Marsha became less and less my “landlady” and more and more my friend. We two women, who came from very different backgrounds and life paths, found ourselves to have extremely balanced and complimentary personalities and life views as our friendship has expanded and deepened.
As Marsha nears her own retirement, we have decided to join forces and embrace the life of Elder Independence. Well, actually it’s Elder Interdependence. Each of us would have to make different lifestyle choices if we were living alone; both of us can continue to be living in the manner we want to if we create a living situation that supports us both, and we support each other. Over the next six months or so we will be traveling to find the place that we want to live, and then building the type of communal home that we want to have. We’re excited!