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Literature and Aging

Retirement: Forging A New Community

In real life anticipating retirement may turn out to be more problematic than the experience itself. It is not a simple matter to choose where and with whom one should spend the final days of one's life. Shakespeare explored these and other issues in King Lear (1606) and The Tempest (1611). Sara Deats (1999) points out that both Prospero and Lear "are sustained by their love for a young daughter" (p. 31), much as the alienated grandfathers in children's fiction are rejuvenated by their newly discovered grandchildren. Moreover, Deats remarks, Prospero, as the play ends, makes plans to return to Milan and reenter his active life.

Several novels and diaries written from the 1970s to the 1990s have explored a few of the questions Shakespeare examined in Lear and The Tempest. Even if one is not a king or a duke, choosing the wrong time or place to retire can be disastrous. The outcomes, however, vary from novel to novel, and the perspective of novelists are sometimes contradicted by real-life accounts in journals. On the whole, however, nursing homes make a most problematic location. Simon, a retired professor in Jon Hassler's Simon's Night (1979), has prematurely committed himself to a rest home where he is moldering. At the novel's end he is reunited with the wife who had deserted him many years before.

Joyce Horner's diary (1982), which describes her two years in a nursing home, makes sad reading. Like the better known The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell (1968), her journal extends not only our understanding of frailty in old age but also old-age writing itself. Crippled with arthritis, Horner, a poet, novelist, and a retired professor of English literature, moved into a nursing home to avoid burdening her friend. Death and disability threaten her moments of joy. Nursing homes, she acknowledges, represent a prison. Not once in the course of writing does Horner forget that her real home is elsewhere, an Eden from which she has been ejected because of disability. At one point she reads May Sarton's As We Are Now (1973) and agrees with Sarton "that nursing homes are purgatory" (Horner, 1982, p. 185). At the same time her institution, she insists, is not like the one Sarton depicts. Indeed, Sarton and novelist Ellen Douglas's Apostles of Light (1973) paint unredemptive pictures of destructive caretakers. The corrupt institutions deserve the conflagrations with which they are destroyed. Still, bad as nursing homes may be, even expensive extended care facilities do not fare much better in James Michener's novel Recessional (1994). The residents need always be vigilant lest the administration take advantage of their lack of oversight. The most encouraging view of a nursing home can be found in detective writer Jane Langton's Good and Dead (1986). Thanks to the willingness of family and friends to visit an institutionalized man frequently, a new sense of community is created.

Although few wish to end their days in a nursing home, other options are not necessarily superior. For example, living in the community does not protect the hapless Marcia Ivory in Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn (1977). Marcia is sufficiently demented that she resists the efforts of friends and social workers to protect her from starving to death. Fortunately her three companions, Letty, Norman, and Edmund, become better friends as a result of their attempts to save Marcia from herself. Another character, Lucy Smalley in Paul Scott's Staying On (1977), finds herself marooned in Pankot, India, after her husband's death. The Raj has collapsed, but Mrs. Smalley lacks the money to return to an English country cottage. At the novel's conclusion she murmurs to his shade, "how can you make me stay here by myself while you yourself go home?" (p. 255). May Sarton herself learned that ill-health could take its toll, even though she remained in her own house being taken care of by loyal friends. The journals she composed in her last years (1992–1996) depict the continuing pain she endured and the difficulties of increasing frailty (see Berman).

Relatively healthy elders have problems with retirement as well. For example, since the late 1970s the English countryside has not been much of a haven for old people living on their own. The isolation that some older characters seek turns out to contribute to their plight. Moving to the country can cause one's death, as widow Phyllis Muspratt discovers in Penelope Mortimer's The Handyman (1983). This novel breaks new ground for Mortimer. For the first time in her career she writes sympathetically about older women. The ending of Penelope Lively's Spiderweb (1998) is less grim. Stella Brentwood, a retired anthropologist, rejects a marriage proposal and an offer to share a house with a friend. Valuing her independence, she leaves for parts unknown when the stresses of country life threaten her peace of mind. For those who have money and value friendship, however, retirement has its joys. Happiness, however, must be earned. The Welshmen in Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils (1986) are mostly retired and in their sixties, preoccupied with their deteriorating health, and drinking at the pub. After Alun Weaver dies, however, his widow is free for the first time to settle down with an old lover. This ending suggests that progress narratives are not restricted to midlife. Moreover, in The Last Resort (1998) Alison Lurie portrays Key West as a transformative place, much like Prospero's island. The forty-six-year-old heroine Jenny survives her depressed older husband's sexual rejection, by beginning a new partnership with Lee Weiss, an energetic divorcée of fifty. Jenny does not abandon her husband, who needs her editorial skills, but looks forward each year to a return to Key West and Lee's bed. On the whole, however, in fiction retirement appears to be a potentially dangerous transition.

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