Who knows? It could be the launch of an All Things Aging Book Club!
The Retirement Home: Alive With Intrigue
By PAULA SPAN“Who in the hell wants dinner at 5:30?” wonders Rachel Silverman, a sharp Boston lawyer who has mysteriously washed up in the fictional Pine Haven Retirement Community in the nonfictional Fulton, N.C.
“You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out how a place like this works; a later dinner would require a later work shift for those in the kitchen and so on. It’s a business,” Ms. Silverman reasoned.
Down the hall, Stanley Stone, a once-prominent local lawyer, listens over and over again to his Herb Alpert album. Although dementia seems to have turned him into a pro-wrestling fan who lobs scandalously inappropriate remarks at women, he seems content. “He lives in a little apartment with a good bed and good light. The windows of his bedroom face west so he sees the sun setting over the woods near the interstate.”
As ideas about aging continue to seep into popular culture, I’ve noticed senior communities, nursing homes and assisted living facilities playing a variety of roles.
They show up as detention centers for rebellious older characters to escape from, as in the comic novel “Breaking Out of Bedlam.” They’re the fate people struggle to avoid, as in the YouTube dramatic series “Ruth & Erica.” They provide the backdrop for investigations of age and loss, as in the Oscar-nominated documentary Kings Point.
In her new novel “Life After Life,” the author Jill McCorkle’s signal accomplishment is that she has rendered one of these places as a small but convincing universe. She’s written a funny and moving book, but Ms. McCorkle doesn’t play Pine Haven for laughs or generate cheap drama by portraying it as a hellish dump. The community, apparently a continuing care retirement community, or C.C.R.C., emerges as a kind of small town with its own pleasures, conflicts and concerns. (In an essay about the book, the author mentions Thornton Wilder.)
Pine Haven’s residents come to know their new neighbors, share something of their pasts but not everything, change their minds, and change one another. Sadie, the 85-year-old retired teacher in a wheelchair, still thinks most people are third graders inside. She soothes Toby Tyler, a professor and yoga aficionado, when she angrily denounces the judgmentally religious Marge Walker.
Ms. McCorkle has noticed that in reality, age-segregated facilities aren’t so walled off from the rest of life. Outside Pine Haven, Ms. McCorkle has created families with rivalries and connections, homes, schools, and a cemetery.
Her characters include a middle-aged hospice volunteer who runs a hot-dog stand on the side, a misfit 12-year-old (daughter of one of Sadie’s former students) who escapes her parents’ miserable marriage by hanging out with the old people, and a tattooed young woman who does manicures and leads meditation sessions.
And a big orange cat whose mere appearance causes residents to scream and throw things at it, because of news reports about a cat in a nursing home who curled up with whoever was the next to die.
As you can see, Ms. McCorkle likes dark humor as well as secrets. And the great advantage of fiction is that she can tell us what people think as they die, or perhaps shortly afterward.
Death is omnipresent but not so threatening at Pine Haven — it’s almost become another resident that people get used to having around. It’s life that does the real damage.
Paula Span is the author of When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions.