Ever wonder why you see so many large houses that were built more than a century ago, when money was scarce and times were tough? You see large homes throughout the countryside. And in areas where the land was prosperous for farming, an enormous house went up along with a stately bank barn.
Families were big in those days and it wasn’t just dad and mom and a bunch of kids living in the house, it a multigenerational family under one roof. The three generation household (grandparents, a son and his wife and their children), was a common living arrangement.
In the old days, before the government pension plan, the old-age assistance problem was not a big issue as long as most people lived on farms, had big families, and at least one of the children stayed on the farm. It was customary when the elderly were too old to do their share of the work they would stay on the farm and the sons or daughters would keep them in the home. Under the pre-industrial economic system, multigenerational living arrangements offered benefits to both the older and the younger generation.
I read some statistics about multigenerational families in 19th-century America. About 70 per cent of persons aged 65 or older lived with their children or children-in-law. In addition, about 10 per cent of the elderly lived with other relatives: mainly grandchildren, siblings, nephews, and nieces. Another 10 per cent lived with non-relatives; most of these were boarders, but some were household heads who kept boarders or servants.
Only 11 per cent of the elderly lived alone or with only their spouses, and only 0.7 per cent lived in institutions such as almshouses and homes for the aged.
By 1990, fewer than 15 per cent of the aged lived with their children. I’m sure the statistics are similar in Canada.
On the concession road where our family lived in the 1950s, there were mostly large houses where grandparents lived with a son and his family. The county old-age home was built in the 1960s so it was at home sweet home where people lived until they died.
I recall a neighbour everyone referred to as “Old Bill” who cut hay along and in the ditches with a scythe and raked it with a wide wooden tooth rake and then coiled it. It was hay that his son, who had taken over the farm, couldn’t cut with the mower. It gave the old man something to do and he obviously hated waste. He’d make fencing steeples out of thick wire. He was a real old-timer and lived out his life on the farm doing meagre work until he dropped dead of a heart attack when he was in his mid-80s. He was as tough as nails, smoked his pipe constantly, wore bib coveralls in the summer, and was not the kind of a man who could live in an old age home.
A long-time family friend I’ll refer to as Rose became a widow some years ago and sold the farm as she had no children. Ten years ago she moved into a large retirement home. She has a small apartment on the third floor where she lived comfortably until late March of this year when an elderly woman well into her 90s in the building died of COVID-19.
Headlines in the local media made a big thing of the first and only death in Renfrew County due to COVID-19. But the woman was going to die of something at her advanced age.
Immediately Rose became a prisoner in her small apartment when the health unit took over. She wasn’t allowed out of the apartment, not even going in the hallway.
After two weeks of isolation in her room she and other residents were allowed to go to the dining room for meals but only in small groups. Staff in full protective gear — face shields, gowns and gloves — took their temperatures before they were allowed to go in and sit down. Everything is wiped down after a seating. No other resident or staff contacted the deadly virus. So it was a carefully-managed senior home, not like the ones where many elderly died.
I call Rose every few weeks to see how she is doing. She can’t leave the property or she’ll be quarantined for two weeks. A family friend brings her groceries, which are checked by staff. She can’t have visitors. Her eye sight is diminished and that doesn’t allow her to read very much or watch television. She never learned how to use a computer. Life goes on terribly slowly. She’s all alone.
I’m like Old Bill. I enjoy putting away on the farm. I could never get used to living in a strict controlled environment or in an old age home. Never!
Maynard van der Galien is a 71-year-old Renfrew-area farmer and a newspaper columnist starting his 34th year writing columns.