Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
Prologue: The Tunnel
It’s like a tunnel. Two floors of long hallways, winding through and around, with separate black doors, concealing separate rooms. Rows of anonymous doors broken only by a parlor, a sitting space for old women gathered together in later afternoons or early evenings.
Closed in winter. Closed in summer. All year round. Antiquated radiators and central heating from October to May, insular air conditioning in the hot, humid months. When was the last time the tunnel was aired out?
Outside, always viewed through closed windows, exists a tiny landscaped garden away from the inhabitants inside. Purple, red, pink shades of flowers and full green trees (cooly resplendent in the setting sun) might tempt a solitary lady to venture out. But no one does.
They do, however, attend funerals regularly in the chapel; the politely concealed sticky odor of death often lingers afterward. I could smell it once as I set up one of my art programs in the same room, naively assuming the air conditioning was malfunctioning, until I was told of the event that preceded me that day.
The exit rate for last year was 20; there were 4 new arrivals. Departures are usually permanent, with only one possible destination. The average age is 85; one is considered young at 80. Stays can be long, extending for decades. The main activities: waiting, sitting, remembering, suffering, resting, reclining, sleeping, forgetting, dying.
All women, no men, except for the administrator, and the maintenance and kitchen workers.
Antiques galore, permeating everywhere, rampantly filling the parlors, the dining room, the residents’ bedrooms, or the myriad niches, corners, and hidden closets. Old, grandiose, Victorian and independent, with a life wholly their own. Table surfaces polished to a perfect sheen, unscratchable; plush heavy chairs with nineteenth century lines; incredibly ornate, ponderously old fashioned ; paintings never cleaned.
Attention! Furniture should not be moved or stray out of place. Carpets must be impeccably vacuumed. Not a trace of dust must be in sight—except on the occupants.
Time stands still, in what particular era, no one knows. It’s only certain that time has stopped somewhere. Everything, everyone, aging.
The ladies are well attired, well spoken, and well educated. They dress in lavenders, violets, periwinkles, and all other possible shades of purple. Red is an infrequent color, crowded out by soft blues, brighter greens, and occasional mauves. Jewelry is also respectable, preferably, old, inherited, a family heirloom shown with pride.
“Would you like to see my room, dear?” I might be asked; then I am led to a favorite painting, hung in honor above an even grander display of photographic trophies—children, grand children, great grandchildren, a lost husband. “And aren’t these wonderful too,” my hostess proclaims as she gestures toward her personal spectacle.
Our meetings are held once a month. It should be more, but that’s all the budget will allow. And remember the $25.00 per month had to be approved by the Board of Directors first.
Money is scare unless you want to sell the antiques.
Attendance is always good, except when the weather is bad. Then the ladies retreat to their separate rooms for the evening at approximately 6:00, as if they might get wet venturing to the parlor at 6:30. Maybe one of them might fall into an imaginary puddle and catch pneumonia or some other fatal disease. And it’s unlucky to open umbrellas indoors.
Initially, the sessions were polite and mannered, the ladylike participants quiet and reserved. Then at some point, they began to speak to me, to each other. Maybe it was after we moved from the chapel to the parlor off the main lobby—safer, smaller in dimension, and the deep chairs and sofas could be arranged in a semicircle, closer, more intimate.
The slide projector always positioned on a cherry dining room table (never eaten on), rich in texture, shiny with polish. The activities director and I are ever careful to place a mat, sheet, or some of the 1950s records from the adjoining room under my machine to avoid any forbidden scratches. And afterward we replace all furniture exactly, returning every cumbersome piece to its predestined location, at the same precise angle. We do not want to anger the housekeeper.
Perhaps it was John Singer Sargent or William Merritt Chase or James McNeill Whistler or any of the American Impressionists who revived them. Or was it actually the extremely talkative Mrs. Taine who first noticed the mutton sleeves, the elegant sashes and bows, the taffeta materials she remembered her mother wearing at a family wedding? They ostracized her later for chattering, her endless observations, but wasn’t it she who gave them that chance to think again?
Even if the journey went back, to the gay nineties, the Rococo, the Baroque, and finally the Renaissance, might it someday advance forward a slow and lengthy inch or two to the absolute of the present? The news may broadcast from the 1980s television down the hallway, too near the antique clock, but it is an anachronism in this place, a media vision light years away, unrelated, unassociated from the institutional concept of time.
Why is it so hard–avoiding tunnels and the hopeless spaces of the home? The crowded parlor with overstuffed chairs and the windows that are either open too wide or not enough. The temperature too hot or cold. The continuing undercurrent of complaint, not always expressed with the gentility one might expect of such cultivated ladies.
And then the tunnel vision. The distance between my mind and theirs that is somehow bridged by a few paintings: a Monet countryside, a Rembrandt portrait, a Fra Angelico nativity. The growing intelligence of their replies, as well as their own surprise that they are actually responding to life again—even if it is painted, imaginary.
Of course, it’s still too far to take a trip to the art museum downtown or even to walk down the avenue extending along the tunnel.
And naturally, the courtyard garden is off limits, although one can remind them of its existence when pointing out the beauty of Renoir’s own backyard. Otherwise, the ladies might forget as they have forgotten the rest of the world. Or has the world forgotten them? Unless by chance, the world comes directly to the tunnel and its aging inhabitants, knocks hopefully on the door, and proceeds down the winding hallways.
Perhaps someday a gust of fresh, vital air will blow through this living tomb. Or maybe all the antiques will be sold to the highest bidder. Or funerals will be outlawed in the chapel.
Until then…one can only hope.
COMING NEXT: CHAPTER 1—THE CITY OF TUNNELS
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