What stands between us and the half-mad woman who stinks of cat’s pee, we wonder: a fall; a house fire; the sudden loss of sustaining, life-long friendships; an ill-advised investment; an unaffordable rise in the cost of rent, power or food?
The woman’s only visitors were a public health nurse and the SPCA. The nurse came to change the permanent bandage the woman wore on her leg. The SPCA came periodically with wire cages and attempted to trap the sickest of the cats. On the very worst nights, I felt a bit crazy myself and imagined that the woman was crying out to be rescued from a swarming sea of cats or obsessively scrubbing the floor to remove the stink of cat urine. She did her grocery shopping on Karangahape Road. I’d see her sometimes, propelling herself across Grafton Bridge in an ancient wheelchair, her bad leg swaddled in filthy bandages and propped in front of her, like the cartoons you used to see of gouty old gents in wicker bath chairs.
I thought of this brave, mad old woman when I read a recent Nelson Mail article which reported that single women over 50 are struggling to find homes and earn a livelihood in Nelson. The Salvation Army, the Women’s Refuge and the Nelson Tasman Housing Trust have all reported receiving more requests for help from older single women, whom they identified as a “vulnerable group”.
I don’t for a moment question the veracity of these reports, but it makes the feminist, nearly 60-year-old part of me uneasy. For a start, we baby-boomer women don’t like to think of ourselves as “vulnerable”. And we don’t like to think that vulnerability has anything to do with our marital status. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her recent bestseller “Committed”, quotes research which shows that, in fact, married women are more depressed, more likely to die a violent death and are less successful and less healthy than single women. And remember, we were the generation which insisted on “Ms” instead of Miss and Mrs because we thought it was nobody’s business whether we were married or not.
But for all of that, I think it’s sometimes difficult not to succumb to the fear of a lonely old age. We wonder if all that stands between us, and the half-mad woman who stinks of cat’s pee, is a calamitous cascade of bad luck: a fall; a house fire; the sudden loss of sustaining, life-long friendships; an ill-advised investment; a relentless rise in the cost of rent, power, and food.
There is little we can do about the randomness of life but surely we baby boomers who spearheaded and lived through so many societal changes can also pioneer new ways of growing old?
Some baby boomers have been going the grey nomad way - freeing up cash by selling their homes and hitting the highway in caravans or house trucks. But this can’t be a long-term solution and not everyone yearns for the itinerant lifestyle as much Lewis Stanton (aka Hone Ma Heke).
I’ve been fantasising about an old folk’s home run by the old folks i.e. me, and my aging friends. We’d pool our resources to buy or rent a house and hire younger folk to help us with whatever we can’t do, or don’t want to do ourselves. We’d pay someone to cook, keep the place clean and tidy, and chauffeur us to concerts, movies and the shops. As time went, on we’d probably have to hire in a handsome nurse or pretty doctor too. Maybe a yoga teacher. Definitely a masseuse. Naturally we’d have a great library of books and DVD’s. We’d have all the latest in technological devices for entertainment and social networking with only minor bickering between those who favour the Mac over the PC.
I know this sounds awfully like a commune for ancient hippies (minus the nudity and free love by this stage) but it promises much more than mere convenience, cost savings, and self-determination for the older person.
It will guarantee the intimacy and social connection which is so vital to psychological good health and is known to prevent the development of any morbid over-interest in the feline species.