I write from Santa Cruz, California, about an hour and a half south of San Francisco, smitten by the contrast with central New Jersey. In this warm and sunny microclimate, I recognize sturdy shrubs; in New Jersey they would be house plants, brought inside in advance of winter. In the farmers’ market, eggplant comes in four different colors, and vegetables glow with self-confidence.
At a time of transition in my life, I have decided to try a bi-coastal existence as an experiment, dividing my time between New Jersey and California.
There are two main benefits to this arrangement. First, the weather in Santa Cruz is ideal year-round. Second, my presence in California yields constant contact with the appealing family of one of my daughters.
The disadvantage is distancing myself from appealing neighbors and activities in New Jersey.
For me, being 90 is exactly like reaching any other landmark age. Normally I don’t pay attention to my age. When I was in kindergarten, I thought of the third grade classroom as very large. When I reached third grade, I was shocked to realize how small it was. As I aged past formally significant ages, like 21, I was inevitably surprised that they never felt momentous.
I remember being old enough for a library card or getting old enough to vote. It was a mix of surprise and acceptance. “Who, me?” “Already!” I have repeatedly said to myself as the landmarks piled up. Always swamped with pursuing more activities than I could handle — motherhood, playing piano, arranging concerts at my house, cooking, swimming, vacationing, attending theater and concerts — I confess to ignoring how old I was.
I am staying at “Dominican Oaks,” a retirement community in Santa Cruz that consists of 200-some apartments. The site is hilly; the ground floor at higher elevations is on the same plane as the third floor at lower elevations. I have found at least six playable pianos in the complex. A forest of eucalyptus trees surrounds the balcony of my apartment. Wild turkeys walk on the ground. A coyote is said to threaten them.
Three meals a day are provided. Tablecloths and cloth napkins grace the evening meal, which includes a choice of white, red, or rosé wine. The food is ample and imaginative. The variety is enormous.
Some residents are chatty at meals; and some keep to themselves. At breakfast one morning, one of my companions was silent except for asking, “May I have the jam?”
“Dominican Oaks” adjoins a conglomeration of medical institutions bearing the name “Dominican.” Among them is a hospital. The order was established by the Dominican Order of nuns, which dates back to the 13th century and is named for its founder, St. Dominic. The present headquarters of the order are in Adrian, Michigan.
In June the population of Dominican Oaks totaled 217. About one-third of them were Californians. Their ages ranged from 62 to 101. Women outnumbered men by about three to one. Almost 85 percent of the residents were above the age of 80; almost a quarter were 90 years or more. The average age was 86.
With casual social contacts, I am ambivalent about mentioning my age. On one hand, I am tempted to bask in the admiration I gather when I reveal my age as 90. On the other hand, I am tempted to give my age as 78, which I can get away with.
However I turn humble when I think of one of the women living in the community from which I write. She is 101, impeccably groomed, and always cosmetically correct. She drives, does water aerobics, and attends performances.
At Dominican Oaks, the largest component declaring a religious preference was the 52 individuals who identified themselves as Catholic; 46 individuals listed various Protestant affiliations; 15 identified as Jewish. Outnumbering all religious groups were the residents stating no religious preference.
Five Dominican Oaks residents are members of religious orders. They wear no distinguishing clothing. When I introduced myself to one of the residents, he told me that his name was Father George and gave his last name. I asked him if he wanted me to call him “George,” and he replied, “No, call me ‘Father George.’ It was a lot of trouble getting that credential.”
The individuals with religious callings have led unsheltered lives. One of the resident nuns was a chaplain for the Miami, Florida, Police Department and was known as “the nun with a gun,” or “a member of the God squad.” Holder of a master’s degree in criminal justice, she now volunteers at a California state prison.
Dominican Oaks offers both independent living and assisted living arrangements. Those living independently are expected to manage on their own. The assisted living arrangements include supervision of medication and help with such tasks of daily life as dressing and bathing.
A noticeable number of residents use wheelchairs, walkers, or canes. However, during meals, wheelchairs are parked outside the large, cheerful dining room, and residents are simply a gathering of people eating, not a crowd that includes a large number of disabled people. At the end of a meal, dining room attendants return the devices needed for mobility.
Some of the buildings here are marked with large, slender green crosses. The symbol identifies places to obtain marijuana and products using it. Since 2016, cannabis can be obtained either for medical or recreational uses.
A popular walkway is the path atop the cliff of Monterey Bay where one looks down on surfers and sedentary sunbathers. Sharing the space are a throng of hikers, bikers, and skaters using the photogenic lighthouse as a landmark.
The local public swimming pool is operated by the county and has the dimensions of two Olympic pools. Its temperature is 78 degrees, but it feels warmer. The showers in the locker room deliver a thrifty spurt of water and need to be nudged for more. Like many places in California, Santa Cruz has a chronic water shortage.
My health is normally robust. I attribute that to two things: first, not thinking much about it, and, second, conscientiously taking medications when they are prescribed for discovered conditions, like my rapid heart beat.
I attribute my get-up-and-go to a singularly unadventurous mother who never mastered sewing, knitting, crocheting, baking, driving, or planning ahead. I, on the other hand, was attracted to mastering whatever crossed my path.
Lately, I have learned to see the wisdom of my mother’s approach. Whereas my father invariably consulted a timetable about trains to New York and complained when he missed one, my mother simply went to the railroad station and waited. Virtuously, she repeatedly reminded him, “Herman, you always talk about missing trains. I [stressing the word] have never [stress, again] missed a train in my life.”
Nameplates identify those associated with an apartment. The names of spouses who have died may continue to be listed on the nameplate. No longer being alive does not necessarily destroy an individual’s connection to an apartment. On the other side, some residents prefer having the name deleted because seeing it may prove too painful.
Dominican Oaks is a community of well-to-do elderly people who need not worry about their finances. There are two main reasons why residents leave. The less likely one is that they develop problems related to dementia, which is not a specialty at the community. The more usual cause of leaving Dominican Oaks is dying. Remember, the overwhelming proportion of Dominican Oaks’ population is above 80. Dying is a common occurrence here, and no attempt is made to hide it.
Discreetly, deaths are noted near the building’s elegant entrance. At the back of the lobby is a grand piano with a shining tawny finish. Tucked under a staircase, it avoids dominating its surroundings. With its lid down, it displays photos of the recently deceased and posts dates of memorial services. The residents have invented a term for the act: “being pianified.” One resident observed that the grief of his spouse’s death was minimized because of the continuing company of others and the constancy of Dominican Oaks’ daily routines.
Residents of Dominican Oaks do not obsess about death; instead, they divert themselves.
Some devote themselves independently to worthy causes of their own choosing; others take advantage of offerings devised by the management or contrived by residents.
A monthly newsletter distributed to residents includes a calendar of activities scheduled each day. Some are scheduled at the community; some require travel elsewhere. Some are secular; some, religious; some, such as bible study, are hard to classify. Some are at a beginner level; others, advanced. The range of possibilities overwhelms.
Furthermore, open to new possibilities, a recent monthly newsletter at Dominican Oaks solicited responses to suggestions for activities by residents, inquiring “Who is interested in being a model in a fashion show of vintage clothing?” “Who is interested in a scrapbooking class?” “Anyone interested in a couple’s group to share secrets of long marriages, grandchildren, great grands, etc?”
The vigor and vitality of “Dominican Oaks” is palpable. The residents have devised how to outsmart being old. Many with disabilities have assimilated them into a thriving life style.
A lively female resident who uses a walker and has regular appointments at a nearby beauty salon comes up with the ultimate description of the community. “Dominican Oaks” she says, is “a cruise ship going nowhere.”
The big unknown of spending time on the west coast is the mastery of managing plumbing, household maintenance, and houseplants from the other side of the continent. A team of New Jersey neighbors, pledged to let me know if difficulties arise, looks after all of these situations. I haven’t heard about crises from any of them.
The scheme that I have devised seems comfortable to me. The glitches, if any, will become clear after I return to New Jersey.
I would like to believe that when problems emerge, their best solutions grow from individuals facing particular dilemmas. If it feels just right, it’s got to be just right. Never mind what your Aunt Hannah might say, or what your rich cousin Snodgrass might think. Do your own thing when you face a new situation. Start trusting yourself as soon as possible, so you get used to it early.
Editor’s note: Elaine Strauss has been a freelance contributor to U.S. 1 for more than 25 years. She has written hundreds of articles, pursing each with a youthful sense of adventure and curiosity.