When Dave's dad died, his mom, Ruth, who had lived in the same house in Pittsburgh for over 30 years, decided it was time to move. This isn't an uncommon reaction; major life changes like the death of a spouse often impel us to make changes in our living situation. What was somewhat unusual about Ruth's decision was that she didn't consider heading off to Florida or Arizona or any of the other "elder ghettos" as she calls them. Instead, she thought about what makes a place "home" for her. It certainly wasn't warm weather or an "active elder lifestyle." Rather, what she deemed important was family and independence. Also, having had to take care of her aging mother by long distance, Ruth was determined not to put her own kids into that same situation. When her own mom was in the last years of her life, Ruth was constantly shuttling between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, where her mother lived. "I just didn't want to put you and your sister through that," she tells Dave. "It was all so unnecessary. The problem is, you know, that people are afraid to admit the obvious—that they're going to die—and so don't make the necessary preparations. For me, the solution was easy; since neither you nor your sister has any intention of returning to your childhood home, then I would come to you. If Mohammed won't come to the mountain and all that."
Ruth spent her first few years as a widow getting the accumulations of 35 years of marriage in order: donating clothes, giving away books, selling the house, and so on. She retired from her long-time job as medical librarian at Braddock Hospital in a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Then, along with the help of Dave's sister, Deb, she purchased a duplex house in Madison, Wisconsin, where Deb was living. It's big enough that they don't get in each other's way, but small enough that they're able to help each other out—Mom assists by being the "responsible adult" to her two teenage grandsons when Deb's away—and Deb can lend a hand as Mom gradually may need more care.
The decision to pack up and leave Pittsburgh, her home of 40 years, was relatively easy for Ruth. That's because, for Ruth, home isn't so much a physical place as it is a matter of one's attitude toward it. "Home is what you do and the people you do it with," she says. "As long as I've got a modicum of culture, some interesting professional activities, and a small group of friends, then it feels like home." Within a month of transplanting to Madison, Ruth had become a subscriber to a theater and a chamber music ensemble, had secured for herself three days a week volunteering at the University's medical library, and was regularly hosting dinner parties for Deb and a growing group of friends and acquaintances.
"I've adjusted pretty well for an old broad of 78," says Ruth. "Madison feels just like home. Of course, it didn't hurt that when I moved, I brought a lot of the old stuff. My living room here looks just like a miniature version of our home in Pittsburgh. And that's comfort. It's what we loved most dearly from our past life. But you can't hold onto all of it; if you do, you lose everything."
As we move into the second half of life, we inevitably confront the question "Where in the world do I belong?" Changes in relationships, work, and physical health naturally precipitate the need to reconsider our sense of place. And this means both our external place—where we live—as well as a more internal sense—where and to whom we really belong. Fortunately, the second half can provide us with a unique opportunity for renewal; we cannot avoid the freedom to choose whether to stay, grow, or die.
The challenge is to discover the basis on which to choose to move or stay, cling to or renew.
In nature, organisms move about and relocate when the time is right. Migrations are a survival tool for countless numbers of animal species. As contemporary human beings, we seem to have a tendency to hunker down and stay put when we're challenged. But this may not be the most appropriate response. We're genetically programmed for both flight and fight; we need some way to figure out which is the better choice.
In traditional cultures, elders are accorded a special place, both literally and figuratively. The Hadza people reserve a prime spot in the inner circle around the fire for those individuals who have attained the status of tribal elders. They also reserve a special place in their rituals and respect for such individuals.
Contemporary Western culture doesn't do such a good job of holding a place for elders; it's up to each of us, therefore, to claim our place by focusing on that which sustains and renews us. We do this by recognizing what we have to offer to our communities and figuring out the best way to share it. In so doing, we make ourselves a resource for success in our communities and thus carve out the place in which we belong.
Soon after completing the first book he and Richard worked on, Dave and his wife Jennifer, picked up from their home in Minneapolis and headed off to Seattle. They had a variety of reasons for their move, but the primary one was that the Midwest never really felt like home to either of them. They enjoyed Minneapolis a lot, but something about it never quite fit. While they felt, when they were there, that it was a great place to live, neither ever really envisioned settling there forever.
Making the move was complex, difficult, and expensive. It would have been much easier to stay in Minnesota than head all the way across the country with no friends, family, or place to live.
And yet, it was all worth it. In the end, Dave and Jennifer found their home in the Northwest. It's not perfect, and it's certainly wet, but it is the place they belong.
Everyday, people pack up and face the trying challenges of finding a new place to call home. Nobody particularly looks forward to moving, but many of us look forward to having moved. The hunger for a place we belong is among the most deep-seated of our emotions. We're willing to put up with a lot during the journey if the promise of home lies ahead.
The myth many of us have accepted is that as we age and put down roots, we lose our ability to relocate, either literally or figuratively. Often we get stuck in a place, again, both literally and figuratively. Ultimately, though, the only way to get unstuck is to find a better place. The only way to liberate ourselves from the restraints of a place is to claim a new one. Just as no tree can grow tall unless it is firmly rooted in the soil, so we, too, cannot continue to flourish unless we have set down roots in the place we really belong.
Of course, it is a serious challenge to identify where that place is. We can pore over maps all day long, consult the places-rated atlases, and contact chambers of commerce all over the world, but the information we gain won't give us all the answers we seek. Ultimately, the place we are looking for is a place somewhere within us. We must journey inward as well as outward to find our place in the world. Like those intrepid explorers of old who sailed off to terra incognita, we too must be willing to venture into uncharted waters. We must be willing to explore the regions of our own world—our internal world—about which the maps provide no information. And to succeed in our quest, we must do more than merely peer over the edge of those maps, we must venture into the unknown as well.