Review of “Old Friends”, Tracy Kidder, 2000

This was written in around 2000 and originally appeared in The Magazine, a zine I self produced a few issues of. I ended up posting the review on Amazon  – there’s probably a morality tale there. I wrote this when I was 21 or 22, hence the references to “we young people.” Since this, I have had a lot more experience of nursing homes, and yet I wouldn’t change much about the review, although I might if I re-read the book (which was the subject of a scalding review by Mary Gordon in the New York Times)

Oddly enough I can’t find the cover of the book I read online – which featured a black and white photo of an older man and a younger man in a diner. Perhaps it was the UK edition or somesuch. The internet can blind one….

oldfriends

 

 

“For most of those long-lived, ailing people, Linda Manor represented all the permanence that life still had to offer. It was their home for the duration, their last place on earth.”

Thus writes Tracy Kidder in “Old Friends”, an account of life in Linda Manor, a Massachussets old folk’s home. It would be a useful exercise to watch a day’s television and see how many elderly people are featured. The old are increasingly invisible in our society. Once respect for one’s elders was a maxim in most cultures. Now all has changed in the consumer capitalist west; with a prevalent worship of a narrowly-defined sense of “youth” – physically slim, impulsive, impatient; and the traditional virtues of the elderly – experience, deliberation, rumination – are derided in that accurate barometer of the spirit of the times, advertising. In medical training, there is an unspoken but clear bias against the elderly; students are advised to ensure that the stereotypically scatty little old lady sticks to matters of strict clinical relevance.
The notion that we have anything to learn from the elderly has disappeared from most contemporary culture. The elderly are a nuisance, a problem to be medicated and managed and forgotten. Kidder’s book – unsentimental and heartbreaking, a clear-eyed portrait full of dignity and beauty and humour – is a counterblast to the cult of youth and the pathologising of old age. Increasingly we, as young people, live lives surrounded by people of our own age only – the decline of large families mean that we are less likely to have infant siblings or indeed much older siblings, while the large extended family gathering is increasingly dwindling.
The blurb on the back of “Old Friends” begins:”What’s wrong with Tracy Kidder? A robust man, even a youthful one, a father fit and healthy, with years of life ahead of him: why did he voluntarily enter an old people’s home?” One might fear a self-fixated meditation on the authors own concerns; but Kidder is an absent presence in the book; he gives his elderly cast the stage. The focus is mainly on Lou, a serene, wise ninety year old Philadelphian; and his roommate Joe, a tempermental impatient seventy-two year old who chafes at existence in the home after an active life.

Kidder presumably had an extraordinary degree of access; not merely physical but also emotional. We are taken into the rooms of the dying, the deepest fears of those who will shortly join their ranks, the sadness and guilt of relatives. We see the power structure of the nursing home, a relatively enlightened one where nevertheless elderly people with enormous professional and administrative experience are made – with the best intentions – to feel like children.
We learn from the elderly in this book; and the elderly learn from each other. The gruff taciturn Joe is gently coached by Lou into telling his wife he loves her. Joe and Lou coach the staff of Linda Manor in tact and sensitivity- for example the hearty “Did you have a bowel movement today?” is replaced by the less intrusive”Did you or didn’t you?” The full emotional range is here; love, ambition, anger, jealousy, pride; life in its most distilled, pure form – life facing

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