12 March

Hard Day: The Social World Of Older People

by Jon Katz
Hard Day: The Social World Of Older People

I’ve written a lot about the Mansion, and much of it has been sweet and uplifting and touching. There is another side to being in the Mansion, the staff knows it and I have seen it, but today I was closer to it than before, it was a hard day at the Mansion.

I was reminded how grueling the work of the staff is, and how strained the lives of the residents can be, and how discouraged I can get at times, something I am not sure I have ever written about. But I should, it is just as much a part of the picture as a loving therapy dog like Red.

There are good days and bad days at the Mansion. The residents are cooped up lately, there is so much snow on the ground, they can not take their walks or sit on the porch. Today, they were crowded into the Activity Room,  Maria and her art class were having fun on one end, but suddenly, there was great tension on the other end.

People were cruel to one another, impatient and intolerant. Verbal struggles broke out about who was sitting where, and who walked around too much, and how Bingo was just another form of gambling and wrong, and about who spoke too loudly, or was too forgetful, or who left their things on the sofa making it difficult for other people to sit there.

The arguments rose and got warmer, I walked into the middle with Red and tried to distract people. We tried to rehearse our skits, but one of the cast faltered and stumbled and couldn’t get through it, and one of the other cast members was visibly disgusted and angry, i canceled the rehearsal, trashed the video, it was too painful to watch.

At such times, there is little I can do. Red is a diversion, and he quiets people down. I try to talk about other things – the weather, animals, flowers. One of the residents was angry with me because I invited him to be in the cast. For some reason, he found this offensive and shouted at me that he wasn’t going to be in the class, not matter what I did.

I said he wasn’t in the cast, and heard my voice rising, I stopped and asked everybody if anyone wanted to take a walk down the hall or see Red in their rooms. A couple of people said yes. It was a bit surreal, because on the other side of the room Maria was having a lovely art class and everyone was busy and drawing.

It was all petty and discouraging. I was on a high working with Red and the reading programs and helping so many people there in so many ways. This was a different people, for unknown reasons, many of the residents were angry and on edge. They were taking it out on one another, and on the staff, and on me. And that is a part of it, you either see that or get out.

I’m reading a book called “The Social World Of Older People,” and it is helpful to me. It reminds me of the difficult, claustrophobic, and very limited lives the residents are leading. The book, by Christina Victor, Sasha Scambler, and John Bond talks about aging, and also about the pressures on elderly people living in institutions: their helplessness, loneliness and  isolation.

These people have good reason to be unpleasant at times. I am often angry over much less.

They have lost the opportunity for normal family and social engagement. They are heavily medicated. They hurt somewhere in their bodies almost all of the time.  They have trouble walking or standing up from chairs.

They have lost their work and careers, many have lost spouses, they lost their neighbors, their participation in civic life, the opportunity to share their lives with siblings and grandchildren, their freedom, disposable income, ability to choose friends and activities,  the right to decide their own health care, their mobility, their animals, and in many cases their health.`

How much loss can anyone suffer without effect or consequence?

And they suffer from loneliness and social isolation, twin ghosts that haunt the elderly.

They have experienced the loss of civic engagement, access to basic services, material resources, the right or ability to earn money,  cultural activities and social participation. They have their rooms and their hallways and in good weather, the porch and the grounds.

But the boundaries of their lives have shrunk profoundly. They have known great loss.

It is my job, as it is the staff’s, to keep this in mind, and to be patient and reach deep for empathy, standing in the shoes of some of these people is no fun. Today, for the first time, i wanted to shout back, but I was never close to doing that.

It is important to say every day I also see acts of courage, love, community, compassion, humor and creativity. Every day I am hugged, thanked, appreciated, welcomed. There is no perfect life.

I see remarkable moments among the Mansion residents, acts of passion and energy and connection. I see it all the time.

And I see the impatience, frustration, anger and isolation all the time too. There can be a profound loss of purpose and hope, and the danger of encroaching passivity, the shock at being so dependent. These are working people, ghosts of their former selves. They are not used to asking for things.

It may not be easy to be around them at all times, but it is a lot harder to be them.

But it did get to me today, I crashed for the first time working as a volunteer. I was saddened by the cruel arguing over nothing, and depressed at my inability to do much good. So tonight, I’ll just feel it, and tomorrow morning, i’ll shrug it of.

We are going to have a two-day snowstorm, starting at midnight tonight, so I may not be at the Mansion for a couple of days. I will be calling the Bingo game Friday night, I will have moved on by then.

The authors of “The Social World Of Older People” help me see that the social world of older people has changed radically over the past 50 years, nowhere more so for those people housed for the remainder of their healthy lives in elder care facilities.

For all of human history, there was really nothing like these institutions in most places on the earth. America, for better or worse, has invited a completely different way to die and age, and none of it is naturally occurring.

We are only beginning to grasp what the institutionalizing of old age and death – and the much longer life spans modern science has given us  –  means to the people unknowingly and helplessly swept up in it. We are great at keeping these people alive at all costs by any means, but no one wants the responsibility of giving them good and meaningful lives to live.

The experience of elder care is sometimes lifesaving, a great relief, and sometimes so shockingly isolated that people cannot absorb it.

Many people in the Mansion are grateful to be there, and they know it is a Godsend for them, not a curse.

Their lives there are viscerally  unnatural and that is what I have to remember when I have a day like this. My job is to fill some of the dark holes,  And the Mansion residents do not need to be stereotyped as saints. No angels in this story.

This was a humbling day for me, it was a jolt, it whispered in my ear that I should always tell the truth, not a cozy version of it.

They are people, just like me writing right here on this blog. Sometimes you get the good me, sometimes you get the bad me. But you always get me.

I am not a God or a wizard. I can’t change destiny. Getting older is what it is, not one thing but many different things. I can’t wash away the fear or the darkness.

Only lighten a few hours of life every now and then.


  1. You put into words what it is all about Jon it is sad to see this I am 79 years old and it is so hard to depend on others so I am at that place to understand. But Jon you have helped so much just think it was a off day I hope you feel better think of all the times you made them feel so good and God Bless you and the staff Maria all

  2. Thanks for doing all you can for those folks, and take time to care for yourself and refresh and recharge, too. I know you will. You and Maria are doing much good, but it is good for all of us to be reminded that there are many sides to this, not just the “good stuff”. No one is an angel all the time. I feel so much for the residents there, as I get closer to my own old age. And I feel just as much or more for the staff.

  3. An immense gratefullness for writing honestly about this. I help care for my elder in laws here on their property where we both live. While they are in there own home still (and I hope they can remain until their last breath) their social interactions and dwindled…their friends have died, they don’t travel anymore….
    Being harsh and sometimes cruel when they were younger makes it hard sometimes to have empathy with them…as you said you felt your voice raising…oh yes, been there.
    I have found that my greatest resource has been to remain thankful for them in our lives and, yes, for them now. If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t live in a tiny cottage in the country, having raised family and, now, welcoming grandchildren to love this land. If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t have been able to have food on the table sometimes. Some days, when they are darn difficult, that’s the furthest thing from my mind. Some days I don’t want to be thankful for them and I shout out to God that I am peeved……then I rest and regroup because tomorrow is another day. And they are still here.
    You’ve blessed the folks at the Mansion so much, you and your army of good. Cling to that in the hard days, but also never forget to feel the pain of those hard days otherwise your empathy will greatly diminish…. you will smother your flame that ignites that goodness in your soul….you must feel both the good and the hard in order to continue to be human, to serve in the capacity that you yourself have chosen, to love the wife you’ve been blessed with.
    Years ago I read this, it’s part of a Christmas prayer. I keep this edited copy with me as a reminder to be honest with my feelings.

    I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.
    No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.
    No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present moment. Take Peace.
    The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!
    Fra Giovanni

  4. Thought provoking and scary as I approach the big 5-0 in April! Just think about it. They have become infantilized. They have become children again. They can’t just get up and leave. They don’t have control over money or food or ???. They have no independence.

    And at least when you are a child, there is hope. You know that you’ll *eventually* become an adult and you can control your life. You’ll drive. You’ll have money. You can do what you want. You’ll be independent.

    But for the elderly, that hope is gone. All they have coming is… the end. I would be surly too from time to time.

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