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Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

A visit to a retirement residence conjures intimations of cultural senescence.

by
David Solway

Bio

August 1, 2014 - 12:00 am
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Not long ago, I was invited, accompanied by a trio of talented band mates, to give a performance of my original songs, just now released as a CD and digital download. The host organization was a swank retirement residence which resembled a five star hotel catering to a ritzy and fashionable clientele. The impressive and rambling building was situated in the midst of a vast sward of well-tended lawn, bordered by a lily pond and surrounded by hedges and flower beds. The pastoral location put me in mind of the English Renaissance poet Thomas Campion’s  lines from a celebrated Masque: “Now hath Flora rob’d her bowers/To befriend this place with flowers.” This place was certainly thus befriended.

One entered on the mezzanine level, looking down on a large, elegantly appointed atrium featuring a comfortable lobby decorated with floral wallpaper, a café, a bar, a piano in the corner, ornate vases brimming with flowers, and a team of diligent attendants carrying trays of snacks, desserts and urns of coffee in preparation for the event. Soon the elderly residents began to file in, installing themselves on couches and armchairs, paying little attention as we began setting up our equipment, tuning our instruments, checking sound levels, and so on. There followed a brief introduction and we launched into our first song with the usual mixture of nervousness and swagger.

The performance itself, at least from our perspective, was a qualified success. I muffed an extro riff midway through, though no one seemed to notice, and at one point an amplifier malfunctioned and wreaked havoc with a harmony interlude, thankfully soon corrected. Otherwise we sailed through our production with a reasonable degree of competence, and I felt that, on the whole, we had done a credible job of entertaining our audience. I was shortly to be disabused. While a few of our auditors were clearly pleased and dutifully complimentary, the majority seemed to exist in some parallel universe with only the thinnest of threads connecting it to the customary world which I had assumed we shared.

To begin with, some of our more tryptophanic listeners had fallen asleep, half-hidden behind the blossoming flowerpots. Many, as I subsequently discovered, were effectively deaf — not tone deaf, but so hard of hearing that we might have manifested to them as a pantomime ensemble gesticulating to no purpose. Others were frankly puzzled. One woman informed me afterward that she and her friends had expected a traditional sing-a-long so that they could, well, sing along. A repertoire of new and original songs was not what they had bestirred themselves for. Others had been so busy chatting before, during and after the concert that they had little idea of what had just taken place. A tottering gentleman regaled us at length with his dimly remembered personal history. Another, a 90-year-old Don Juan, was exclusively interested in one of the female members of our troupe, whom he followed doggedly around the room. And so it went. I felt we could just as well have shouted banalities into the mics or told off-color jokes for all the melodic impact we’d had.

Of course, this was a retirement residence, an “old folks’ home,” and I should have anticipated no different a reaction from the generally uncomprehending response we met with. And lest I be mistaken for harboring a streak of cruel condescension, let me say that, after my initial shock, I realized that such an elderly company deserved nothing but sympathy and understanding. My error was assuming — since we would be performing in a state-of-the-art institution, doubtlessly among the most opulent in the country — that the residents would carry their age rather better than those who had not benefitted from the advantages they enjoyed. I should have known that, with providential exceptions, age is age no matter how pampered, and that sometimes money only whispers.

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All Comments   (13)
All Comments   (13)
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You've confused a momentary fad -- Progressivism -- with the whole of our culture.

Old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
It is possible that your music was appreciated more than some of the residents could express. Anyway, it was a nice thing to do.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
I agree that the people are getting weaker and the technology is getting stronger. One consequence of stronger technology is that US oil production is rising rapidly. This rising oil production is very poorly understood currently. Basically currently new oil production and related industries are adding 1/2 trillion to the USA economy. In three years it will be adding 1 trillion to the USA economy. This is making money the old fashioned way. Earning it. The results are and will be life changing to direction of the USA. The short of it is that gold is going down, the dollar is going up. Pensions are going to be funded. People will still get old but they'll get senile a little more comfortably than previously feared. As well, new money will bring confidence back to the civilization. Maybe even enough confidence to cause people to do more baby making. That last of course may be a stretch.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
Odd bit about this, David. I hesitate to share it, hope you don't mind.

I have written a song (as yet unrecorded and unpublished as are my two dozen other songs and three novels...bucket list items, partially fulfilling an unspoken promise) that I titled What Goethe Found. Subtitled, At The Lily Zoo.

Set to a steel drum, Jamaican beat...the lyrics metaphorically fit your essay here.

A song likely to be unheard, by an audience that isn't listening.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
Institutions do age like human beings do. The Episcopal (or in Canada, Anglican) Church is decaying into dementia, and examining it is like looking at a conveniently miniaturized version of Western culture. Its occupants are physically aged, and there are few children coming after them. The Church will die naturally of old age if something more drastic doesn't finish it off sooner. Many of the old people in the church realize that things are going wrong; they're not stupid, and they can see that their buildings are growing emptier by the year. But many of them have resigned themselves to just continuing as they are. Their ambition at this point is for the church to simply outlast them so they can get the pleasant funeral service they've always assumed will be the conclusion of their existence here on earth.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
Fortunately, there is the Anglican Catholic Church ("Catholic" in the true meaning of the word) here in America. It retains what was lost in the old Epicopal (read "English Anglican") church of my youth.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
Retirement homes house both the mentally aware, who are physically unable to live on their own anymore for various reasons; the physically healthy, who have lost the mental ability to do everyday activities; and every gradient in-between. Having been at one recently with a friend to visit his mother, who falls into the latter category, the loss of mental faculties is far sadder (and as one woman there who remained mentally fit, but physically disabled commented, she was grateful that she was still able to do things like read a book while seeing others whose short-term memory abilities had evaporated).
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, Jon, the loss of mental faculties is the cruelest deprivation.
My mom suffered that and seeing her ability to enjoy music as she used to was heartbreaking.

I know David crafted a political and cultural metaphor here, but the description of the nursing home residents response to his band's performance hits so close to home that I imagine many of us can't get past it. Sorry, David.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm sorry if you wasted your time, but as a metaphor I think it's overly bleak.

Of course even a better metaphor may be somewhat bleak at this point and I'm not going to offer one. As for "retirement" homes, I offered a very nice one to my aging mother a few years back and she declined the offer and managed to pass away before it became entirely necessary. But even the very nice one did have altogether too many old and feeble people hanging around to really be as nice as it seemed - and even older people resided out of sight, I'm told.

If you ask me, small but well-run facilities integrated with the community would be far better. There are some of those about too, the problem being the "well-run" part. Then you might get a more mixed and appreciate audience anyway.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
I like your idea of facilities well-integrated with the community. The problem is that we Americans , regardless of political stripe, are so damn keen to shut the elderly out of our sights. A culture that idolizes youth and novelty for novelty's sake, finds the elderly tedious, at best.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sad and correct reflections.

But what a joy: you use the word

TEMENOS

and hearing that word I feel that the West is still alive and strong ...




20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
We are dealing with three extant parents ages 93, 91, and 89. Dementia has grabbed each, making conversation impossible and repetition the order of the day. There is no life when the body outlives the mind. There is no palpable quality of living, and what passes for events are the simplest of children's games.

How ridiculous of the facility to invite a musical group of contemporary tunes to entertain the residents. They know the awareness and ability to participate of their charges, and if not, they should all be fired herewith.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
"...the thinnest of threads connecting it to the customary world which I had assumed we shared...age is age no matter how pampered"

Based on my experience with my mother, I determined that institutionalized age (no matter how opulent) is to be avoided if possible. My mom called her comfortable, well-appointed old age home "the institution" & from the overly cheerful attendants to the management hiding behind forced smiles and everything in between, she was right.

"What was once a blooming garden is growing progressively arid, flimsily camouflaged by an artificial inflorescence."

I guess the only place to find fresh flowers now is within, not without.

Hearing snippets from your songs, I thought of Leonard Cohen, one of my lifelong favorites.
20 weeks ago
20 weeks ago Link To Comment
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