For years, among various groups of my friends, the idea was broached, off and on, that a group of us should move into a compound-like setting and while living independently, take care of each other as the need arose. I think it instructive that not one substantive idea was ever floated among us. To me, there is something organic about multi-generational and multi-family communal style living. Perhaps it harkens back to some tribal gene that still floats around in the genetic soup.

I have outlived my ability to deny my extraordinary selfishness and need for personal space. However, the other side of that coin is the reality of my own growing dependence – not yet apparent but inevitable. That this seemingly good idea never got beyond the “what if” stage indicates a real lack of willingness to give up the “castle domain” to any idea that diluted privacy, control and even property.

I recently read an article in the Times about a movement by some builders to build houses that support extended family. These designs usually end up being self contained units that are in some way separated from the larger part of the house. They usually have private entrances and do not require crossing paths with others under the same roof unless intended.

There are zoning problems with this kind of housing in many areas, usually put in place to “protect” the area from what is supposed to be the evils of multi family dwellings and therefore the degrading of the neighborhood. I suppose if someone wanted to install 15 college students in a large house next door that would be a problem – the undisputed value of 15 college students notwithstanding. But to build a mother-in-law apartment in the house or cottage in the back yard is hardly the same thing. Yet zoning ordinances, where they exist, usually prohibit such additions. The thinking is that such a thing is just a foot in the door for those 15 rowdy college boys. Obviously.

The ugly truth is that not everybody is someone others want to live around. One young woman in the article I referred to said she would live in her car before living with any of her family. Such feelings come quickly to the surface when the suggestion of living in close proximity to others, and in particular the family of origin, is proposed.

The close knit village, the tribe, the family compound and the neighborhood have all disappeared into our dusty memories. Yet, the concepts live on as though some unseen hook won’t let go. The dedicated enclave for older people seems to be gaining some ground. The thinking I suppose is that a shared life cycle position would encourage community which would, in turn, become a safety net for all.

All the ideas that have been floated with the intent to bring families and like-minded friends together as they grow older and need support seem to be good ones. If there is money these ideas seem to work more easily, as with everything else in life. For the majority of Americans without such resources what is left is some form of being cared for or at least “monitored” by family, friends or the community, and possibly some combination of these resources.

As I have noted, if there is enough money one can buy into some security and care in one’s old age. What one can’t buy into is what I have been alluding to all along: compassion – to empathize with another’s situation – to suffer with. Compassion is the backbone of human love. Without it all the grand ideas mentioned above are just fluff.

But you need to be careful about compassion. If it gets out of hand, it can define your life. I’ve seen it happen. It’s scary. I’m working on it gently. A little here, a little there. So far, I have learned to spell it and use the word in a complete sentence. There’s hope.

Be well, and stay tuned.

Leave a Reply