After a Superstorm, a 'Spinster' Finds Community
With the power out and fires crackling, a single writer discovers her isolated suburban home belongs to a caring village
Jane Gross, a retired correspondent for The New York Times and the founder of its blog The New Old Age, is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Knopf 2011, Vintage 2012).
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At the time, I was unwilling to return to a dark hamster cage in the city I had lived in most of my adult life, where nature is largely confined to parks and potted plants on fire escapes. But once I reached a certain age — I'm now 65 — living here became more than just a matter of being a social pariah, with few friends whose lives don’t revolve around their families. Sometimes it’s dangerous. I used to climb ladders to clean my gutters, but that's too risky for brittle bones. I used to shovel snow without my cell phone in my pocket, never giving a thought to keeling over in cardiac arrest. I used to do a lot of things I’ve gradually and reluctantly stopped doing, because I’m not ready for a Medic-Alert pendant or a Continuing Care Retirement Community. But I’d just as soon not wind up in a heap on the ground, hoping for my bimonthly cleaning woman to find me.
And then came Hurricane Sandy, with a Nor’easter storm fast on its heels. Alone in a pitch black, bitter-cold house for five days, with trees crashing around me, transformer fires crackling like fireworks throughout the neighborhood and only my dog for company, I was a wreck. In the midst of the storm's fury, my longtime fear of being old and alone overwhelmed the competence, composure and independence that we spinsters — my word, not yours, and one I’ve always liked — either had from the git-go or acquired. And feeling frightened by my own fear, the last thing I wanted to be in these circumstances, however extreme, was "a little old lady," or even someone perceived as a little old lady.
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Once the worst of the storm had passed, and my power and my Internet service were finally restored, I found in my email box a message from the Recreation Department of our little village of Hastings-on-Hudson. Its portfolio includes services for the elderly, like chair exercise classes, vans to the supermarket and some insultingly named program called Busy Bees that I’d vowed never to have anything to do with. Now, the email said, the department was creating an "Are You OK?" senior citizen registry "to check in on seniors in town in the aftermath of a storm or other disaster." Anyone interested was encouraged to send the agency their name, address, phone, email and emergency contacts.
My first reaction was to balk. Then I swallowed my pride, up to a point, and filled out the form, adding in the comment box, in boldface, underlined type, this caveat: Please know that I am "only'' 65 and in good health. That said, I live alone and welcome what the village is doing. Still, I assume in an emergency, those older, frail and in poor health would come way before me on your list of people to worry about.
Then I hit "Send."
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If there is ever another superstorm in this region and some kind soul comes to my door to check on me, I know I’ll be grateful. My hunch is I’ll hug them and cry in relief. Still, I’d rather not be the little old lady needing assistance, but someone capable of helping. All the experts in successful aging urge participation in volunteer organizations rather than staying home sulking that work isn’t work unless it comes with a paycheck.
It's a Village After All
The residents of the half-dozen blocks surrounding my house have long had a listserv, previously used almost exclusively to make plans for the neighborhood's annual summer pot luck. Yet as the storm approached, it buzzed with messages from neighbors looking out for one another. They may be apples and oranges, but the listserv and the "Are You OK?" registry both helped turn a place where I had long felt unwelcome, and lately unsafe, into exactly what it is: a village.
(MORE: The Village Movement: Redefining Aging in Place)
With the immediate danger, and the second storm, past us, I felt it was time to thank the mayor, the Recreation Department and my neighbors, and to do so, I used that very listserv. To "All," I wrote:
It has long been difficult to be a single, childless, 65-year-old woman in a family community; lonely at best and terrifying at worst, as it was on Night One of Sandy, when my house went black. I had secured all outdoor projectiles. I thought I was prepared. Yes, I had flashlights and batteries. Yes, I had candles and matches. Yes, I had plenty of food and water. Except I had no idea how "dark'' dark actually is; my carefully assembled stash of stuff to light my way was two rooms away and I couldn't see well enough to find it. I had no idea that the nearby transformer fires, which actually helped light my way to the flashlights, would so petrify me. That trees would soon be crashing down so close and so loud I was sure they would breach the house. Going outside to look, briefly, the wind literally lifted me off my feet, like Mary Poppins.
I have a basement prone to flooding, so only when it was clear that water was not going to be among our manifold problems did I go down to the basement to sleep with the dog, bribing him to stay with me by giving him more treats than he's had in his whole life. And I wasn't able to make even that obvious, sensible decision — to get out of harm's way — until panic had so overtaken me that I was hyperventilating.
Maybe the rest of you weren't that scared. But I lived through two massive earthquakes and four vast wildfires in my years as a reporter in California and none shook me up like this, maybe because I was working as a reporter then and that makes you feel like a "first responder."
Only when the first of the messages came on this listserv did I begin to calm down. All of you were so supportive, even when I only felt you "out there'' from the screen of my iPhone (charged in the car). People with working computer access offered it to people with non-working equipment. Those with generators strung lines into neighbor’s houses so they could have a few lamps. When I managed to get a tree off my car (aka the phone charger) with a jack, some of you cheered me on from your doorways. Girl Power! One of you, mysteriously, had both heat and hot water, and let me shower. Anyone who found an open gas station sent a news flash, including the length of the line.
I'm not an active participant in civic affairs. I vote. I care. But I have no patience for boards and meetings. I'm not proud of that; just realistic enough to know it's not likely to change. That said, I loved what we did here the last two weeks. I doubt there is a neighborhood where people better looked after each other. And I think, sooner rather than later, we should find a way to celebrate together.
Thank you. Thank you all.