Andrew L. Pincus: A new residence, but without an old dog

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LENOX — The dog lies on the lawn by the kitchen door, waiting. He thinks he sees me walking up the driveway from the mailbox. He sits up on his haunches to get a better look. I don't come. He settles back down with a grunt. I will never come back.

In the usual scenario, the master would be dead. Instead, it is the dog that is dead and I am walking in his fields and woods without him. The scenario rolls on in my mind as I pass the giant maple, the hedgerow, the lake: Since Tuffy is not here, he must be back at the house, waiting. But the house is empty. I'm living in the retirement home.

Tuffy was three-quarters chow, one-quarter golden retriever. He was bred that way to bring out the best of both breeds: the guard-dog act of the chow, the waggy-tail stuff of the retriever. To look at him, you'd have thought pure chow. He had a long, coppery-red coat with black highlights, an imposing ruff, a black tongue and a snub nose. We once met a woman on the trail who was so taken with his two-tone color scheme that she swore she was going to go home and dye her hair the same shades.

More and more of us are living longer, which means that more and more of us will be looking at retirement communities. Already, the Berkshires, with its scenic and cultural attractions, has become a retirement magnet. It's a natural transition from a second home to a retirement community. As of 2010, the U.S. Census reported, 13 percent of Berkshire residents were over 65.

Houses, as well as people and dogs, age. The time came when my wife and I had to fix up the house or sell it and let someone else do the fixing. In a concession to the years, we moved to the retirement home. By chance, Tuffy died two months before the move. He was 13 and his hindquarters had gone bad. One morning he woke up with a glaze in his eyes and completely unresponsive legs. It was time for the final injection.

Just as well, in a way. Tuffy would not have liked it here. Oh, we have plenty of dog lovers and he'd have found lots of friends. But back on the country road where we used to live, he had his yard to roam in and his rabbits and squirrels to chase. We had a view of the valley and October Mountain beyond. Here, the living-room windows look out on a courtyard enclosed on three sides and another wing of the apartment complex across the way. Sensibly, only small dogs — terriers and the like — are allowed, and even they can't run free.

It's a shock to downsize and give up a beloved home. The bigger shock, we found, is being plunged into communal living with many fellow residents on walkers or motorized carts. Birds, other than crows, don't much visit.

After dinner it's silent in the halls, except where televisions babble behind closed doors. Especially if you're still active, you can feel shipwrecked on a foreign isle.

Nobody seems to know how many of these institutions there are. LeadingAge, a national coordinating and advocacy organization, lists about 1,930 "continuing care" retirement communities – those offering a spectrum from independent living to assisted living to nursing home. That is where we washed up.

It's lovely here. It's friendly. We have flowers (some artificial) and art in the halls; exercise classes (yoga in chairs); movies, billiards, beading and bridge; art shows, lectures and concerts; van trips to museums and shopping malls. Health aides and housekeepers ply the halls. Plugged-up sink? Call the front desk. Snow? The grounds crew will plow and shovel. No problem.

This, I assume, is what the Boomer generation can look forward to.

People on the outside sometimes ask where I live. I reply that I live in the retirement community but have no home. If people insist, I say it became too much trouble to pump out the basement after every big storm. Too hard on the back to shovel snow. Too expensive to fix the roof. Impossible to keep up with the heating bills.

All very true. But not the truth.

I think of the Robert Frost poem "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," about a farmhouse that long ago burned down. Birds fly in and out of the broken windows of the ruined barn:

For them there was really nothing sad.

But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,

One had to be versed in country things

Not to believe the phoebes wept.

Back at the house, we had phoebes that came back year after year to nest in the eaves outside the kitchen door. I wonder if they miss Tuffy as I do as I walk without him, imagining him waiting at the door.

Andrew L. Pincus is a classical music writer for The Berkshire Eagle.


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