After their wedding trip to Havana in January 1953, my parents moved into a small apartment perched high in the rafters of the Newark three-family house owned by my grandparents. Mom’s sister lived on the first floor, and Grampa and Gramma squeezed in the middle. This arrangement lasted for several years, through the birth of two of their four kids.
The three homes were tied together not only by a grand oak front staircase, but also by a rickety backstairs, where everything important happened (usually at a hundred decibels). You always had a babysitter and a good meal on call. Life was frugal, by today’s standards, but good. The whole edifice smelled perpetually of competing “gravies”—Newarkese for “sauce”—from the three kitchens.
When Grampa got sick in the mid-1970s, he was cared for at home. There was always someone around to help him bathe, use the bathroom, and so on. He wasn’t in good shape—but he was never lonely.
Fast forward to the late ’90s, when my dad died. Mom was left alone in her suburban ranch. Although she had good friends and neighbors, she was lonely and bereft. We four children all still lived in New Jersey, but far enough away to make daily visits implausible given our work and family obligations. Even though I had young kids, I would often ride the bus from my New York law firm job to Mom’s house to spend the night during the months following Dad’s passing. It was a tough time.
Fortunately for Mom, she had a good friend of forty years, Charlie, a wonderful man whose wife had also passed. Mom and Charlie married four years after Dad’s passing. After several years of wedded bliss, they sold their houses and moved to a very nice “senior living facility”—as Tony Soprano called it when responding to his mother’s taunt that “my son put me in a home.” The deal was you pay a hefty entrance fee in exchange for a lovely independent living apartment. When you needed it, you could seamlessly move to assisted living, and then to nursing care, on the same premises. The newlyweds had each other, plus new friends. Almost heaven, New Jersey!
The seamlessness worked well, but all too soon. Charlie fell ill. He skipped assisted living and went straight to nursing care. The good news was that Mom was able to visit and care for Charlie during his final months without getting in a car. The bad news was that, after Charlie passed, Mom was alone again. Surrounded by lovely friends, yes. But ultimately still alone.
Several years after Charlie’s passing, Mom’s Parkinson’s disease started to kick in. Despite good care, medicine, and physical therapy, Mom deteriorated steadily. She needed a walker, then a scooter. And then she couldn’t really manage either of those. She needed us more than ever.
We “kids”—the youngest of us is sixty—visit often. But we don’t live around the corner, and we have the competing obligations of work, children, and grandchildren.
In January 2020, an illness sent Mom to the hospital. She was released to the nursing care facility for physical therapy. And then COVID hit. Visits were restricted, then banned. Our governor decreed that such facilities accept COVID patients. Thousands died as a result.
Mom was weak, and we thought she wouldn’t last long. But, like Gloria Gaynor, she survived, and recently turned ninety-two. We can now visit again, but with restrictions. The facility is short-staffed. Although we’ve discussed the possibility of moving Mom to one of our homes, caring for her would be extremely difficult, as it demands a lot of physical strength. She needs to be hoisted by a special lift for changing and bathing.
So Mom remains at the nursing facility, where she is cared for well. When we visit, she often says, “I’m ready to go home now,” not realizing that she is “home now.” That hurts, especially when we have to inevitably end our visit and she says, “Don’t leave me. Please take me with you.”
That’s the status quo. Not terrible, but not great.
Knowing what we know now, I think it would have been better if Mom had moved in with one of us after Charlie died. The COVID-induced isolation—and worse—permeating our “senior living facilities” is a haunting reminder that, as a society, we lost something precious by migrating away from multi-generational living.
That three-family house in Newark is looking pretty good. Even Tony Soprano might agree.
John Soriano writes from New Jersey.
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