Cared: Podcast Transcript
Anita Rao 0:03
As a kid, I spent a lot of time around folks in the last decade of their lives. My sister and I played piano recitals at community care facilities. And for two years in elementary school I volunteered at a health center in a nursing home, going room to room chatting with folks and accompanying them in their wheelchairs on walks around the building.
I have a lot of very vivid memories from that time, and I think it's because those spaces were so different from the rest of my life. There were very rarely other kids or families around, and a lot of the folks I interacted with didn't seem to get other visitors. There was one woman in particular who communicated via a whiteboard. And often my handwriting would still be on that board when I came back one week later.
I didn't have the words then for what I was observing, but I can see now that it was an early look into an experience many aging Americans are working to prevent, isolation.
This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.
A quarter of adults 65 and older are socially isolated, and their living circumstances physical health or finances prevent them from accessing the relationships and community ties they may have once had. Protecting against this can look a lot of different ways. And for one a husband and wife duo, that meant moving into an independent living facility.
Charles Owens 1:39
As usual, I should have moved sooner. But we moved and it was the right thing to do.
Anita Rao 1:48
That's Charles Owens. He is 94 years old and has been living at Croasdaile Village Retirement Community in Durham, North Carolina since 2011. He and his late wife Peggy moved into independent living from their longtime home in Roxboro, North Carolina, a city of about 8000 people. His kids, Rosa and Eddie, were a big part of this first transition. Helping downsize, pack boxes, and hiding old tools and keepsakes in their own garages for the inevitable moment when their dad would ask, "Hey, where is that [fill in the blank]." But the move wasn't just about a physical relocation. It was about finding community and friendships and a new place. And as Rosa puts it, building that kind of connection came easily to her dad.
My dad never seemed to know a stranger. He was always the first to pretty much meet and greet people as they moved to Croasdaile, and he's made a lot of good friendships through that community. I just — everybody knows daddy and everybody loves him.
Anita Rao 2:56
As his friendships blossomed, Charles's relationship with Peggy also continued to grow and evolve.
I remember the two of them together. They were always like teenage love.
Anita Rao 3:10
When you saw them they were always laughing and giggling, and daddy always put a smile on Peggy's face.
Anita Rao 3:20
Peggy was someone that you met a little bit later in your life, I think you were in your 50s.
Charles Owens 3:25
Yes, I was. And her husband had just died with a malignancy. So a friend of mine, a pastor, who we had been in school with invited me to — to a lunch in which my wife was present. And so I met her then. But I had a lot of negative things from my first marriage. And so I wasn't in any condition to do any courting or anything like that.
Anita Rao 4:02
Charles Owens 4:02
So I — Peggy and I would see each other about once a year. And the question was, "Are you married yet?"
Anita Rao 4:12
Charles Owens 4:12
And, No. And so — but 10 years later we — we were married. She teased me, "Charles you never did ask me to marry you." And I said, "Well, no, but I did say that I didn't want to live without you."
Anita Rao 4:33
Aw. So you all have this budding romance and build this connection. You move together to Croasdaile and then you all started to notice that Peggy was showing some signs of dementia. What was it like for you to shift into the role of caretaker?
Charles Owens 4:51
Well, for 12 years I was looking after my children, and I was — I was not a bad cook. And Peggy moved to — into my house I had set up. And she said, "The next kitchen is going to be my kitchen." But she, with dementia, I realized that she was far along when she said, "Charles, I'm going to appoint you the chief cook. And I will do the cleaning." And I knew that that was a sign of her advancing dementia. That was a sign that things were not going well. But — but I was glad to do that.
Anita Rao 5:39
What did you all notice about the shift in their relationship in that period?
Well, there's there's that deep love that they had for each other.
Anita Rao 5:48
That's Eddie, Charles's son.
My dad's nature is someone who tries to serve others. And so here was an opportunity for him to serve his own wife. When she couldn't do things, he would do them for her. And when she would forget, he was always there to be by her side. And even — even, I think later on when she would sometimes forget who people were, she knew who he was. And she knew that he was someone that she was supposed to be with, and that he was someone who was important. And that meant a lot to me to see that relationship change in that way.
Anita Rao 6:32
How about for you, Rosa?
I remember him always visiting. And she would have a smile on her face when she'd see him walk in the room. She might not know who he was sometimes, but — but she would be smiling. When we would take her to eat, you know, they would be at a table eating together because Daddy was helping her eat and sat through the whole thing and tried to make her happy and to laugh. And he'd always tell her jokes or — or he'd one part of the sentence and she was supposed to finish the sentence. Like, "Life is what happens." And Peggy would say, "When you've made other plans."
Anita Rao 7:22
Life is what happens when you've made other plans. And when you live to your mid 90s, rolling with the punches just comes with the territory. In 11 years, there will be more Americans over the age of 65 than children. And that means more and more families will find themselves navigating the same care challenges as the Owens. This population shift raises big questions about infrastructure and the economy, but also our own day to day lives. One reality is that many of us are going to become caregivers for our friends and romantic partners, like Charles did for Peggy. At first he cared for her in their independent living apartment. But at a certain point, it became clear that she needed more support. And Peggy moved to The Pavilion, a medically staffed care facility that's part of the Croasdaile campus.
Charles Owens 8:26
I would go down to see her every day. And early on I was able to bring her in a wheelchair to — to main dining, and we could participate in other activities. But the time came when that was no longer possible. And so that was a — began a different — a different kind of work.
Anita Rao 8:52
You obviously have the support of your children and Peggy's children. But I'm curious about the community of friends you'd built in Croasdaile and — and how did you turn to them for support in that time?
Charles Owens 9:04
Some of them had a similar experience, but a lot of people in their lives died in Croasdaile We had a loss of about 70 people this year. So that happens.
Anita Rao 9:22
What is it like navigating that much loss and that being such a kind of expected part of your life in this phase?
Charles Owens 9:32
Well, we have a chaplain who does a marvelous job in helping us to leave and helping us to say goodbye to those we love. So it's- it's great to have that kind of send off. We aren't just waving bye, but there's a real feeling of this the way things work. And this is a part of our existence.
Anita Rao 10:02
I'm curious for you all, so in this phase, obviously, you saw that, you know, your dad and Peggy were making some decisions. He decided that, you know, he could no longer be his — her primary caretaker. And there's so much about parent child relationships that shift and evolve over our life. And then this this other phase, like, how did you all approach your relationship with your dad in terms of wanting him to feel — or to support his choices, but also maybe having your own perspectives?
For me, I think one of the things that was important for me, knowing my dad, was to preserve his independence. Decisions that he needed to make were his, but I was always there to help. Rosa was always there to help. You know, these were his decisions to make as he was helping care for Peggy.
Charles Owens 10:50
I was honored to be her mate, and we had a great time together. But things changed. I had a big whiteboard I kept in her room in The Pavilion. And I put notes on there like today as our 400th anniversary. Not sure that it meant very much to her. But I tried to keep up a relationship close with her and not letting go was not easy. But keeping her on, the way she was, would have been worse.
One memory I have is the day of Peggy's internment in Fayetteville, in a cemetery there with her children and with all of us together. And I saw it look in my dad's face, that was a look of joy, a look of relief, a sense that she — that Peggy was free of the suffering that she endured. It was amazing to see that joyful look in his face, you could see his — his smile, his beautiful blue eyes, and you knew that he was happy, and it made made me feel happy. Even though it was a sad moment in other ways.
Anita Rao 12:30
Peggy died in 2018, and Charles stayed in independent living. But just this past month, after a series of falls, he made another big shift, downsizing even more into assisted living.
Charles Owens 12:43
I had been working in the garden about three — three hours, and I assumed that I could do something like step up on the curb, which turned out that didn't work so well. So I fell. And I think that began some of my heart valve issues that are beyond repair. So I'm on that road now. And I know that it has an end. And I'm not worried about that, I have made plans for my demise. Several years ago, I signed a contract with Duke Medical Center, that my body would be donated to them. So I want to keep on giving beyond this life.
Anita Rao 13:33
There's so much that this kind of shift can symbolize I guess, for everyone in the family, You mentioned that it sprang up for you, you know, very real feelings about acknowledging the movement toward the end, the — the loss of possessions. How are you thinking about what you want out of your relationship with your kids in this next phase? Like what do you want from — what is great support from them look like?
Charles Owens 13:59
They've, gone out of their way to to help me in this these last days, and I have confidence that they will do their best for me, whether I like it or not. [Laughs]
Anita Rao 14:11
Charles Owens 14:13
I realize that it's time to let go. So I'm working on that. I still have that, thinking about that waffle iron,
Anita Rao 14:23
Charles Owens 14:23
and that — and that breadmaking machine is still part in my room right now. And it worked out right there not long ago.
Anita Rao 14:35
Rosa, you ate in the cafeteria with your dad, one of his first meals I think once he'd moved into assisted living and some questions and concerns came up for you. Tell me about — tell me about that.
So, that first meal we had. Nobody talked. Nobody hardly said a word. And I just, you know, that's not my dad. He wants to talk to people and he tried to talk to the guy beside him, and following the guy answered daddy with a "yes." And that was all he said. And Daddy kept trying to, you know, get some conversation from him, but it — it didn't happen. And so that concerned me a lot. And I was found out that he could actually go and eat anywhere. He didn't have to stay there and eat.
Charles Owens 15:29
But I will point out that last night, I had a domino game with all four people. And so they're going to be playing dominoes and cribbage, which I offered to them. And so it's making changes in an assisted living.
Anita Rao 15:47
What are each of you looking forward to in the next year or a couple of years as you've obviously made this next really big transition, you're trying to talk openly about your dad's health and what it means for the family?
For me, you know, I'd like to visit dad and maybe learn how to play dominoes, maybe learn how to bake bread, the way he bakes bread. Engage in a game or to have cribbage on a regular basis. I think that would be fun for me.
The future looks good for the next couple of years, I think. Just enjoying daddy and his new place and also taking him out to have everybody under the same roof again.
Anita Rao 16:34
Do you have any advice for — for your kids as they as they prepare for — for further aging and to do so hopefully in a way that retains community and friendship and connection?
Charles Owens 16:48
I'm sure they've all had more the more of my advice they want to hear. But I would say that take care of yourself and establish community where you can and make the best of your life together.
Louise A Vogel 17:23
What am I looking forward to? I want to do more dancing. I'd love to do it once a week with a group of people. I've been in the theater group, I teach improv. I love it. It's therapeutic. I've met some wonderful people. There's a lot of creative people out there. It keeps us young, we're laughing more and it's adult play. We need to play more.
Robert Weinberger 17:48
I'm 79 and a half years old, but I don't feel old. I'm looking forward to first of all, finishing a book that I've been working on. Secondly, retirement. Third, managing my health and finances. Fourth reading, travel, family, cousins. And last organizing my papers, since it's late in life, throwing out college essays, downsize.
Sarah Thompson 17:48
One of the things I look forward to is called the Phyllis and Dell Posse. And it is a circle inner group of lesbians who belong to San Francisco Village. It's important to me because we're all lesbian, bi, trans women who grew up at a time when there was much more homophobia, much more blatant discrimination. But we're fighters and we had to fight. And so we feel like we've lived in a very important part of history.
Anita Rao 18:57
While some American seniors like Charles choose to move into independent or assisted living facilities, many more Americans opt to stay in their own homes as long as possible. But without the built in community of traditional care facilities, many seniors are cut off from day to day social interactions. That's where the village model comes in. 20 years ago, a group of older adults in Boston created a network of care and support to help them age in place. The model has spread across the country, and our producer Gabriela visited the Avenidas Village in Palo Alto to check it out for herself. Just in time for Monday bridge club.
Avenidas Village Ambience 19:42
Two Diamonds. [Sound of cards shuffling]
Helen Young 19:47
I'm Helen young and I'm 91 years old. I joined the village when it began, basically because all of my close friends had died. And at my age if you don't keep replenishing your friends, you're very lonely.
Jacques Fossourier 20:10
Okay, my name is Jacques Fossourier. I'm 78 years old. Avendidas was a good opportunity to meet people and to have organized social activities under the theme that you kind of getting older at home as opposed to go to a retirement place. So that's — that was the purpose.
Avenidas Village Ambience 20:32
You had a really nice hand, yeah.
Susan Thomas 20:34
My name is Susan Thomas, and I am almost 81. Well, my husband and I are still living in our house. And he has severe dementia. And I was finding that I was getting pretty isolated, because it is really different aging in place than it is if you're somewhere where they take care of everything for you. But I cannot give up my garden, and a dog. I've pretty much never been without a dog. And there aren't that many places that let you have one.
Judy Goodnow 21:11
My name is Judy Goodnow and I'm 85. We like our house. We like our neighborhood. We like the idea of aging with people of all ages around you, to make your own choices about things. You know what time you eat, what time you sleep. You know what I mean that you're that you're not in a sort of an institutional setting.
I'm as old as my tongue and almost as old as my teeth. And my name is Mary. When we were younger, we had our jobs and we had everything related to the social life of the jobs. And we had children in school and all that once you retire is gone. And so the sense of community is absolutely primordial.
Anita Rao 22:05
That deep sense of community and belonging is what drew Madeline Franklin not just to become a member of a village, but to lead one.
Madeline Franklin 22:14
When we talk about the village movement, we're talking about a plan for aging and not a place.
Anita Rao 22:22
Madeline is the executive director of the STL Village in St. Louis. She's in her mid 70s and hoping to stay living in her home for as long as possible. Madeline started thinking deeply about her own aging process when she became part of the sandwich generation, tasked with raising her two young boys while taking care of her aging parents. And back then there weren't a whole lot of resources to support elders who wanted to age in place. So when Madeline first heard about STL Village and an email call out asking for volunteers, she was excited to join. And what started as a four hour a week volunteer commitment eventually turned into a full time job.
Madeline Franklin 23:03
One of the greatest barriers to living in one's own home is the inability to drive. And so because transportation is so important, villages provide volunteers who are able to drive members back and forth to the doctor, to the grocery store, to other important appointments. Who make friendly telephone calls to members, who provide minor home repairs. In the instances where a member has been in the hospital, villages provide meals for persons upon their discharge. And that's something that we talked to our members about that you don't have to suffer in silence. There's a whole cadre of volunteers and members who are available to provide support to you.
Anita Rao 24:01
We've been talking throughout this conversation about isolation and just how common of an experience it is for older adults. There was a poll earlier this year that asked a sample of US adults 50 to 80, and one in three said that they experienced this feeling of isolation, a lack of companionship, or went a week or more without social contact. How have you seen the village help seniors navigate isolation? Are there any particular examples or stories that come to mind for you?
Madeline Franklin 24:33
Certainly, when the village started shortly thereafter, one of our members had lost his partner, and he was experiencing severe depression and was really contemplating suicide. And one of our members invited him to come to an activity that we were having and fortunately he agreed to participate. He became very active in the organization, participated in events, helped to plan outings. And so it just made a tremendous difference in his well being. And I've also seen other members who have had that realization, by being a part of the village could really make a significant difference in their lives.
Anita Rao 25:31
Villages are designed to create community, but not just for folks in the last decades of their lives. These grassroots organizations also pride themselves on forging intergenerational relationships and partnerships. The STL Village for example, partners with Washington University on a class called When I'm 64. Where undergraduate students are paired with members of the village to ask big questions about health care, housing, social infrastructure, and how aging issues are relevant to all of us.
While many villages are welcoming of diverse populations, numerous barriers prevent this from becoming a reality. US neighborhoods are more segregated than a generation ago. So when you recruit first with the people around you, they likely will be folks of the same racial background. Another big barrier is cost. For context, aging in place is significantly less expensive than moving into a community care facility. The average monthly rent in retirement communities is close to $4,000. Most villages around the country have annual fees in the six and seven hundreds. But this amount is still too much for many people. And Madeline has been working to find solutions.
Madeline Franklin 26:53
I think that we've been fortunate to receive funding from organizations that allowed us to provide both subsidized memberships, and within the past year free memberships. Which really changed the makeup of the village to a great degree. It is a work in progress to bring people of various backgrounds together. And one of the things that we do is have outings, we take day trips, we take nosy neighbor tours to areas throughout the community. And that has been very successful. People coming together and experiencing something for the first time, I think has really helped.
Anita Rao 27:44
As you look forward to the next decade or two in your own life, you are solo aging, you're not in a in a relationship right now. What do you want for yourself and these next couple of decades,
Madeline Franklin 27:56
Certainly, to maintain the connections with other people older as well as younger people to remain active. And to fulfill a sense of purpose. And reason for being I think it's so important. And it's something that I certainly want to continue to maintain.
Anita Rao 28:19
What's your biggest reason right now?
Madeline Franklin 28:21
I really enjoy the work that I'm doing, to have seen the organization grow from a very, very basic grassroot organization, to one that's recognized throughout the community. And so that is just very fulfilling and exciting for me that I've had an opportunity to be a part of that growth and development.
Anita Rao 29:01
I personally am so thrilled to know about the concept of the village. And it just feels like one more example of a fundamental truth. We need community to thrive. The way our society is structured right now with a focus on the nuclear family and a figure it out for yourself mentality just doesn't work.
I watched as my mom and her siblings struggled to care for their aging mom, mostly by themselves. And I've seen my friends trying to grow their families amid a child care crisis without a safety net of support. We're told to figure it out for ourselves, but at what cost?
All of this has gotten me thinking a lot about my own parents and the conversations we need to start having as a family. My dad is crawling slowly toward retirement, and my parents are planning for a big relocation. I know we need to be talking about the hard things. About how my parents want to age, about how my siblings and I can help them build a network of support. Loneliness is part of the human experience. But social isolation doesn't have to be. And it's our job to look to each other, choose connection, and create communities of interdependence.
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast consider a contribution at wunc.org now. You can find out more about all of the guests you heard from in the show notes of this episode. A special thanks to Sarah Thompson, Robert Weinberger, Louise Vogel and Edith Kaplan for their contributions to this week's show.
This episode is produced by Gabriela Glueck and edited by Kaia Findlay. Paige Miranda also produces for our show. Amanda Magnus is our regular editor. Skylar Chadwick is our intern and Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla wrote our theme music.
Thank you for listening to Embodied and thank you for your support this whole year. If you like this show, please spread the word and your own networks. Word of mouth recommendations are the best way to support this podcast.
Until next time, I'm Anita Rao taking on the taboo with you.