A woman of adequate means and apparent good health (whom we shall call Barbara) has resided in her suburban single-family home for thirty years. She’s in her 80’s and has managed without local friends or relatives since her husband passed away in 2006; the calendar over his desk still shows the month. It’s a comfortable place but suffers from failure to maintain. Aside from the food in the kitchen, the look has not changed in twenty years.
Barbara drives; she teaches water aerobics for the elderly and shops at a small grocery. She watches a fuzzy eleven-inch TV with rabbit ears, and reads a paper featuring massive type on a ten-by-fourteen front page. Barbara has trouble standing for much time, so she no longer travels out of town.
There is an almost universal resistance to change. Part of Barbara knows she must relocate closer to relatives before her mobility declines. But, as she readily explains, the risks and logistics are abundant (read insurmountable). Collectible appraisers cannot be trusted. Junk remains because items are too heavy to move out, yet assistance would disclose she lives alone. A real estate agent cannot be selected because the house is not ready for sale. So nothing gets done.
It seems like a natural response to declining abilities that we would perceive more of a threat and raise our defenses. But even positive transformation on a large scale, when it can be accomplished, is often times more about evolution than change. The new Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas P. Campbell, recently said that when describing his role in guiding the Met into the twenty-first century. Our whole country took years to accept racial equality and women’s rights. And in the current U.S. presidential election, a sub-theme is the reassurance of identifying with a family unit and life style matching our own when we face stressful times.
Barbara’s increased caution with life events after losing her husband is certainly a metaphor for our older population struggling with independent living. But to me, it is a larger lesson on how groups deal with trauma
or strategic change, as well.