In his new book, A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America, Dudley Clendinen, a former national reporter and editorial writer for the New York Times, chronicles the compelling life stories of the residents at a Life Care center in Tampa Bay. Here his mother, some of her closest friends from the Tampa area and other "sundry folk" have come to live out their final years. Clendinen describes their journey as "an exquisitely poignant and gritty and dear kind of odyssey," and he tells their tales with compassion, honesty and humor.
"No generation before has lived so long, accumulated so much, grown so independent in old age," he writes. Nor has a generation like their children, the baby boomers, "ever been as dazzled and daunted and consumed by the apparently endless old age of parents." As Clendinen navigates the unfamiliar territory of Medicaid, medications and medical staff, he learns a great deal about this "New Old Age."For several years, his mother, (a woman, in her prime, of "seductive charm, a charitable heart, steely determination, and canny intent") enjoys a full schedule, living in her upscale apartment at Canterbury, going out to dinner at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club. But after she suffers a stroke, she is moved to the nursing wing for the care she needs. As the years pass and she slips further away from him, Clendinen struggles to stay connected with her, to communicate with her and to do right by her.
He forms close ties with many of the residents, and over time, their remarkable stories emerge. Through these "Canterbury tales," we come to know "survivors of the Great Depression, D-day, the Holocaust, and of the American civil rights struggle." We come to understand their joys and sorrows as their tales take us back to their childhoods, their first loves, marriages and careers, and we are reminded of their incredible sacrifices and strengths. Now their children, the boomers, must be strong as they face caring for aging parents - while not getting any younger themselves.
Linda Stankard is a former activities director at a nursing home.