A night long ago in a Balkan village highlights for Richard Friedlander the changed standards for how we treat the elderly.
Many years ago, while hitchhiking in the now-defunct Yugoslavia, I took a room for a night with a family in the beautiful, ancient town of Ochrid, on the lake of the same name, in the shadow of then-communist Albania.
Three generations shared their low-ceilinged home. My “room” was the hallway. My bed, the only one. The rest slept in a single living space, trading comfort for a few dinars. Dinner was included, with everyone sitting on pillows around a knee-high table. Everyone except the gap-toothed, wrinkled grandmother, who crouched in a corner. The others occasionally tossed chunks of roast lamb her way, as if she were some aged pet. Easy to judge, hard to excuse. But what did I really know? I was a young, footloose stranger, being given a night’s hospitality in a land whose people and customs I knew nothing about.
In this country, not long ago, three generations often lived together, passing the torch to those related by blood. Elders contributed in their person what can be learned in no other way. Youth was a gift, offering up its promise. Adults negotiated the treacherous middle ground, sharing youth’s heartache and enjoying its success, while comforting their parents in their decline. Now, pressures of work and finance, the changing notion of family and longer life have made caring for the aged at home difficult and in many cases impossible. Residential care facilities have filled the void created by default.
This pandemic magnifies the isolation of those whose age, vulnerability, and utter reliance on strangers is their only shared history with their new housemates. Who is to say that Yugoslav grandmother wasn't happier than those in the old age home, where all one’s needs are catered to but the one no facility can provide — a family, however dysfunctional. Our temporary self-isolation is nothing compared to that. Its lack can be a cause of death. Hopefully, we will put our minds, hearts and resources to creating compassionate alternatives to our present inadequate options.