Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Still feelin’ groovy? Your nursing home awaits
I once had a flatmate – a hippie of sorts and, a decade older than me, a genuine baby boomer – who would wash all his clothes at once. Knickers, the lot. You’d come home after lectures to find him sprawled on the paintless back veranda, strumming guitar, mumble-singing to his dog through lips clamped around a joint, naked as a newborn.
The rest of us tacitly understood this behaviour to result from three things. One, he didn’t own a lot of clothes; two, washing of any sort was for him a strictly occasional activity; and three, he was Australian. His girlfriend, a leggy nurse with a hyphenated name, was comparably afflicted. Every now and then she’d go out to collect the mail completely forgetting, until the colour drained from the postie’s face, she was starkers from the waist down. Then she’d scream at full volume – like she was the one scared witless – and jog her peachy, double-barred bottom back inside the house.
This is the generation that was going to change everything. Raised on a waterbed of sunshine, sex, zen and feelin’ groovy, these were the lotus eaters, born to live (and screw and get high) forever. Now, as defiantly as the wrinkled Jagger may strut his Little Red Rooster, the boomers are watching their parents die – parents whose every value they rejected – and facing the dreadfully sober news they’re next over the top.
It gets worse. More sobering than death itself is the manner of it. As baby boomers truck their parents from retirement village to nursing home to hospital to hushed, cabbage-stinking hospice, a terrible knowledge dawns. Not only did that whole cosmic revolution fail to shift either death or taxes from their relentless orbits, it also failed to reshape the options on how you die.
The man at the retirement home has gold cufflinks, bottle-blond hair that does not hide the baby-pink scalp and patent leather shoes that clack over the marble expanse from his office. The smile is broad, the hand limp. In a voice almost indistinguishable from the Muzak, which melds in turn with the fountain’s chlorinated tinkling, he breezes: “And your relative is?” Dying, actually. “Let me show you round. You’ll love it here.”
We don’t love it, though we try. The building covers every inch of its suburban greenfield site not devoted to rose gardens, onto which every window stares unblinking, as ugly and overstuffed as Edwardian horsehair furniture. It has wings, designed to establish a hierarchical lead-up to death; unserviced, serviced, supervised and what is called, euphemistically, care.
It’s brand new, he explains, and the toxic reek of plastic carpet and furniture confirms it. Beneath that, though, lurks another aroma, unmistakably faecal, and from every room a pair of eyes, roundly trapped in its stilled, frangible body watches you pass. It’s like Dr Who, without the excitement. Like puppies in a pet shop, only less take-homeable.
The blond, more acute perhaps than he seems, quick-marches you to the party room. It’s empty, apart from the odd sad-looking streamer. He points to the building’s upper levels where the same furniture, still plastic-wrapped, is arrayed awaiting custom. An anticipation of ghosts. The facility, he assures you, is expanding hugely due to pent-up demand.
This is hard to believe, though obviously true. Death as a process, not just an event, is big business. But does anyone really choose to come here? Or do their grown-up children choose it, specifically for its kitsch denial of death? If so, is this really the best the boomers can do for their aging Ps? And what – this is the big one – when it’s their turn?
Famously self-indulgent, baby boomers managed to convert a platform of non-materialism and selflessness into the most materialistic, self-absorbed lifestyle ever. They invented eco-awareness, then built themselves the biggest eco-footprint the planet has ever witnessed. They scandalised authority with music so subversive it’s now played to four-year-olds at day care.
Through sheer weight of numbers they – or if you insist, we – instituted universal youth culture, where everyone wants to live forever but no one wants to be old. Where our best shot at age-respect is stuff like the ghastly Wisdom exhibition, organised by the exhibits – what kind of person names a show Wisdom then puts himself in it? – and shot to make age look as smooth and celebrity-whacked as its grandchildren.
The ideal baby-boomer death is Alan Arkin’s, as the naughty gramps in Little Miss Sunshine; blissing all the way out to the great hoo daddy on a great fat overdose of smack.
Instead, most will follow their parents through the grim privatised spiral, all the way to care. So where’s the imagination here? The leafy communes, the vineyards and orchards and rolling hemp fields, the libraries and mushroom rings, the druidic stone circles, flaming wicker men and wild, raging – well – Scrabble evenings? Where are our sunny back verandas of futures past?
Drug-crazed hippiedom always struck me as a terrible waste of youth but as retirement plans go it might be all right, actually.
From next week, Elizabeth Farrelly’s column will appear on Thursdays.