First Installment, April 12, 2023—Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.
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.
The next chapters are about my quest to bring the vision of art to other Sarahs living in their tunnels.
Tunnels of Paradise
Leisure Lands were overrunning the suburbs, accumulating fast: nondescript apartment conglomerates and clustered dwellings—homogenized, prefabricated slabs of anemic brown, lukewarm orange. Models of corporate modernity or nonprofit enterprise designed specifically for the old. Recycled through the landscape of late twentieth-century American prosperity, its postindustrial grid of metro stops, shopping malls, beltway overpasses, computer enclaves, and golf courses.
A real estate potpourri of condominiums and rentals, one or two bedroom, standard or deluxe, easily accessible if one adhered to the proper payment plan. Promises of convenience and security, service and care delivered via glossy, marketing brochures heralding communities sometimes yet to be built.
Havens of leisurely rejuvenation with symbolic pseudonyms (Triumph Place, Zenith Quarters) or picturesque counterparts (River Vista, Sky Terrace) all showcasing decorators’ wonderlands. Spacious, color-coordinated living and recreational areas, chandeliered dining rooms with menus a la carte, promoted in delft public relations style along with creative arts centers, solariums, and the most-up-to-date health facilities.
Museum One expanded with the retirement empire in the middle years of the eighties. Our teachers, a mixture of Ph.D.s, museum docents, and a social worker were contracted (or occasionally paid through a grant) on a fee basis at a rate of $25 per hour. A new concept for many sites, often dependent on volunteers or an overworked activities department. A number cooperative and willing to participate in a weekly or semimonthly series on American art, Impressionism, or another period, while others (and surprisingly, institutions that appeared to be affluent) professed a paucity of funds, restricting programs to a few times a year, if at all.
Leisure Lands and inner Washington seemed two separate universes to me then, for my own existence was divided between them. The city was rapidly decaying, its pavements and streets sliding downward into the grime of poverty, homelessness. A growing stench was penetrating the urban atmosphere, threatening even the aloof, immaculate Capitol dome.
The signs and smells were everywhere as I journeyed from the States Church Senior Center to an intergenerational housing project in Adams Morgan to the campus of St. Elizabeth’s asylum in Anacostia, even in the previously untouched Ward III. Stray pieces of an overwhelming puzzle, which when isolated could be safely ignored, yet unforgettable when considered overall: the obscenities of a woman running coatless and freezing in the K Street business district, the stray accoutrements of the dispossessed–shopping cartons, bags, cardboard box substitutes for sleeping dwellings.
Only the warmth and humanity of the people I reached helped me to survive. But sometimes I almost preferred the struggles of Washington’s core to the sterile anonymity of suburban Leisure Lands.
Some quality or essence was missing–that vital enzyme or chemical so fundamental to the chain of life. Was it the newness of the surroundings, the absence of dirt, or even dust? Or the lack of other generations, the youthless vistas of sprinkler dominated lawns and country club grounds? Or was it the segregation from the mainstream, within a “do not disturb” zone free from congestion and traffic, business and transactions, pressure and risks.
Residents could indeed enjoy a pleasant schedule of discount courses, chartered trips, bridge tournaments, holiday dances, and for the more altruistic, volunteer opporutnies in the local community. Many were members of the “jet set” of older adults (as I termed them) who were younger (sixties, even late fifties), better educated, more affluent, definitely fitter, some still driving or working part-time jobs.
Flaws and imperfections, though, resided in Leisure Lands, voiced in persistent complaints, anxious concern. A daughter’s lawsuit regarding improper facilities for her disabled mother, frustrated expectations about busing and doctors’ appointments, isolation from families and former homes, and the insurmountable destiny of declining health and enforced immobility.
Yet, the future lay in these tunnels of paradise and in their demographics. Already at the end of the 1970s, 28% 30%, and 90% jumps in county populations of senior citizens in the D.C. metropolitan area had been recorded, and comparable increases were expected in the twenty-first century. For, ironically, the year 2000 would not be about space or galactic conquest, but instead the crisis of aging here.
COMING NEXT: FINAL PORTRAIT
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