May Sarton was better at the distillation process because As We Are Now is only 120 pages but offers a compelling insight into how the old are discarded when they are no longer useful, even before they start to get whiffy. Not all useless mouths you may be sure but enough of them across all classes and communities that it is a recognised trope. I won't get over-analytical but there is a hint that As We Are Now reprises the 1st sentence of LP Hartley's The Go Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The tendency to park the old is rather weak in our immediate neighbourhood where I can think of three homes within about 5km where The Elder occupied a seat in the corner of the kitchen until the very end. In all those cases, the old person was included and continued to make diminishing contributions to family life even if it was reading stories to the kids or knitting another woolly hat [Jakers, enough with the hats, already].
The protagonist of May Sarton's book is Miss Spenser, a retired math teacher in Boondocks, USA who lived a life of culture and discernment; taught generations of teens; travelled to Europe before you could fly there; and continued to read and write after her official retirement. All was grand until she had a heart-attack and was moved to her brother's house in a different part of the State: torn from the familiar and having to learn where the light-switches were in her sister-in-law's home. The two women didn't get on and the brother was (like pretty much all the blokes I know, including self) useless at brokering a deal between the three of them so that they could adapt to the new regime. A little kindness goes a long way in such situations.
All too soon for Miss Spenser she is delivered to a rough and ready nursing home run by a snobbish, over-worked, casually cruel woman and her grown-up daughter. The book was published in 1973, but you may bet that similar places exist wherever regulation and inspection is imperfect. Even after the RTE exposé of bullying and elder-abuse in Aras Attracta in 2014, HIQA receives hundreds of complaints each year including 12 about an unexpected death.
Q. Who is doing the complaining?
A. The family. They are the only ones who have skin in the game . . . and lack the resources (emotional, physical, financial, logistical) to manage elder care in their own homes. It costs a lot to refit your home for wheelchair access: the bathroom rails, draining floor, spring-loaded toilet seat?
In this not so fresh hell, Miss Spenser makes the best fist of it that she can and begins to acknowledge that her contempt for her sister-in-law was a) largely unjustified and b) totally self-destructive. And begins to form new relationships that depend not on common culture and intellectual discourse but on other aspects of empathy and mutual respect. So far so good: quite edgy, insightful, with the ring of truth. But May Sarton was a poet and novelist: this is is a novel. As she puts down each vignette of trial and character development, she realises that there must be an ending as well as a beginning and and middle. There aren't too many options:
- Miss Spenser dies
- Her brother and sister-in-law die and she gets to live in their house
- One of her several external visitors takes pity on her and finds the resources to bring her into the bosom of a different family.
- Miss Spenser thinks "I'll make an end of this and take them all with me in blazing finale".
The title of the post will give you a clue that the wrap-up chosen by the author was abrupt, lazy and unlikely. The book is nevertheless not without value and won't take you as long to read as George Sarton's heavier contribution to the canon.