Experiences: Life at a Continuing Care Retirement Community

Experiences_Book-Cover_WebBy Residents of Kendal at Longwood. Peggy and Allan Brick Publishers, 2015. 167 pages. $12/paperback.

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Alan Walker’s essay “Quakers and the Elderly,” published in the spring 2015 issue of Quaker History, tells us that Friends concern for the elderly goes back at least to 1696 when Bristol Meeting in England opened a home for the aged, considering them part of the meeting’s extended family. The first residences for elderly Friends in America date from 1702; these were followed by scores of small boarding homes until the mid-twentieth century, when extensive Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) became the vogue. Opening in 1973, Kendal at Longwood was the third of these to be built by Quakers, after Foulkeways (1967) and Medford Leas (1971). I call it “Mama Kendal” because it eventually engendered Kendal at Hanover in New Hampshire, where my wife and I have been happily living for 13 years.

One of Mama Kendal’s many distinguished residents was Elizabeth Gray Vining, the famous Quaker author who was chosen by Emperor Hirohito in 1946 to tutor crown prince Akihito. She was a Longwood “founder,” moving there at age 71 when it opened. In the previous year she kept a diary, later published as Being Seventy, about her forthcoming transfer to this community “of old people” where she feared she might lose the independence she was currently enjoying. Many of her thoughts at that time are good lessons for us; the following excerpt is an example:

At seventy I can afford to be an observer. I am out of the struggle. I no longer have to prove anything.

My fundamental conviction about death and life [is] we each have some earthly task to do, and when it is done we go home. “Men must endure their going hence,” says Edgar in King Lear. How can I be sure of this without believing in an anthropomorphic god? Only because I know—I know—that there is meaning in the universe, not chaos, and that love is at the heart of it.

To live right up to the end and still to welcome the end: this is what I should like to do.

Vining concludes:

Apart from all the fuss and fume of moving, I find myself deeply satisfied—and grateful—that I am going to Kendal. The prospect of being part of a community, the opportunity of helping to make it a caring community, and the security for the future: all these are important to me. As to everybody’s being old there, they will, most of them, be young old, enjoying the first exhilaration of retirement.

These final thoughts sum up what one discovers in the 54 short remembrances by Kendal’s current residents concerning their life in community. The common experience of all these people was their move from the largesse and comfort of a private residence. Their gain—besides on-site medical and nursing care—was chiefly the stimulation of new friends. An esteemed geriatrician once told me that the chief “disease” of older people is loneliness, especially after the death of a spouse. In a CCRC this is mitigated by the recovery of so many others who have suffered a similar loss.

One resident comments, “At Kendal we have observed that when one spouse does inevitably die before the other, [the survivor] receives superb social support from the community of other residents with whom one has built close ties over the years of dinners together.” A resident with cancer chronicles the fact that “my sons need not worry about my care,” and the comfort of being “held in the Light by my Quaker friends.” Another speaks of living pre-Kendal without medical and staff support, and without a “unified community to take responsibility for my recovery.”

Most residents are healthy, remaining fit partially owing to intellectual, artistic, physical, and spiritual stimulation, for example: “Kendal revealed a large gap in my skills of communication. . . . The accepting, nurturing community of Kendal has, indeed, opened opportunities to learn to express myself as well as to understand myself.” Yes, as Vining predicted, “As to everybody’s being old there, they will, most of them, be young old, enjoying the first exhilaration of retirement.”

The 54 remembrances in this collection help to convince us that “Together, transforming the experience of aging” (Kendal’s motto) is acceptable self-praise, not just commercial rhetoric. Readers can order a copy online at kendaloutreach.org/shop. A single copy costs $12; 5 to 19 copies, $10 each; 20 or more copies, $6 each.

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