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The Suburbs Are No Place to Grow Old

Weakened by the flu and challenged by a homeowner nightmare, our columnist finds reserves of strength

By Jane Gross

The flu? Big deal. It seems everyone has it this season, even those of us, like me, who diligently got our vaccinations months ago. I had friends who had been in bed, wracked by coughing and lying in a sea of tissues, for two weeks by the time the telltale aches and chills crept up on me, the very day New York State declared a public health emergency. By then there were 20,000 cases nationwide, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with 4,400 all of last winter. The vaccine turned out to be only 62 percent effective this season, federal epidemiologists say, even against the strains it was made for, known as H3N2 and H1N1.

(MORE: How You Can Survive the 2013 Flu Epidemic)

As single people learn to do — especially those of us in the suburbs, where food delivery menus don't just pile up outside apartment doors like they do in the city — I made one last woozy run to the grocery store before taking to bed. Chicken soup. More chicken soup. Fruit juice. Ice cream. Jello. Yogurt. The makings of scrambled eggs and toast. I stocked up on sick people's food — just not enough of it, because I shopped with the swagger of someone who rarely gets sick and certainly never for long.
For the next two days, it was more pleasant than awful. I arranged for the dog walker to come more frequently than usual. In my 1840s carriage house, with a fire in the grate, the dog keeping my feet warm and nothing to wake me from that on-again-off-again slumber particular to the flu, it was more like an unplanned vacation than a crisis. I was glad to have no cohabitating adults expecting conversation — or, worse, meals — from me. When I slept, there were magical dreams reserved for children and those with fever.
At first, the sound of skittering below my century-old floor boards seemed a part of those dreams. When actual worry about those noises first licked at the edges of my sleep, I pushed it away, too lethargic to deal with whatever it was. But a sick homeowner is still a homeowner, so eventually I wobbled down the stairs to the basement, repeating in my head the mantra, It's nothing. It's nothing.

Except, alas, it was something: What had for years been two innocent-looking crevices in my stone foundation were now gaping holes, with piles of dirt spilling from them. It's nothing, I tried once more, wanting only to return to my warm bed where I could pretend this problem wasn't a problem.
But like anyone with an old house and a penchant for worry, I was back in the basement in short order, where I found that the piles of dirt were bigger than they'd been only a few hours before, and that there was a third hole. After several phone calls to local tradesmen I trusted, I had the name of a stone mason who said he didn't like the sound of what I was describing and was headed my way. Together — me in pajamas and a down jacket, peaked and feeling sicker by the minute — we examined the foundation inside and out. He found other spots that crumbled with just a kick, and rodent feces atop the mounds of dirt.
(MORE: The Village Movement: Redefining Aging in Place)

It might be rats, he said, and as he dialed his rat guy's number, a stream of water came pouring through my basement ceiling, below the dishwasher. Rats, he said again, more firmly. They had more than likely chewed through the appliance's hoses. He left a message for the exterminator and told me to call the appliance repairman.
The repairman arrived first. "Rats," he said before anyone had even suggested the possibility, and off he went to order new hoses. The exterminator was next to arrive at my germy sanctuary. "Rats," he said, after one look at the excretory evidence. Out came the Maki Place Packs, sold only to licensed pros. This was the hard stuff, reserved for rattus norvegicus — stocky, burrowing rodents fond of sewers and cellars who are ingenious excavators and prolific breeders. With 10-inch bodies and 10-inch tails, they weigh as much as two pounds, and they had the run of my basement.
My job for the next few days was to wait for them to die. Searching for water after ingesting the poison, the rats and their bloated bellies would find their way out of the house and go to their heavenly rest outside. Sometimes, they wouldn't make it out and they'd die in the basement. Peanut butter crackers left on the floor would be our clue: If they went uneaten, the rodents were dead and gone. But my rats were an especially stubborn group. After they ate through more than a dozen killer pellet packs, the exterminator had to come back with 16 more. At night, I would find some half dead with their eyelids fluttering, scoop them up in a dust pan and toss them in the woods.

There were other problems: The stone mason wanted $4,000 for fixing the foundation even though it still remained partly open, purposely, so the rats would have a route of escape. But the job was not finished and he was insulted when asked for a 90-day guarantee on his work (which the exterminator had offered immediately). A 65-year-old woman living alone must appear an easy mark. I was not.


(MORE: The Perils of Aging Alone)

Would my flu have been shorter-lived had I gotten to stay in bed rather than repeatedly descend to the chilly basement on rat patrol? Maybe not, but it lasted long enough to deplete my supply of chicken soup and other sick-person nourishment. And my good humor has held out, despite a near-empty refrigerator, the creepy sounds of rats skittering out of the basement to die and the yucky sight of others half-dead on my basement floor each morning.
So what have I learned from a hellish two weeks?

  • People our age who choose to live alone belong in cities, with plentiful take-out-food options, friends close by and apartment building superintendents to deal with the rats in the basement.
  • Wherever you live, there are times when everything that can go wrong does. The only way through it is to become a Zen master, or just to laugh when you want to cry.
  • A woman alone must be competent and courageous. But even when we are, plenty of men will try to treat us like idiots. When that happens, curse them out, refuse to pay them or do whatever it takes to put them in their place. I'm going out for the first time tomorrow and the stone mason is expected. I intend to leave a bunch of dead rats on the basement floor and no check on the kitchen counter.
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). Read More
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