Many of the people in the Silent Generation spent most, or all, of their lives on farms or in small villages. Let me tell you about my cousin Marjorie. She was a few years older than me, married to Fred and, not wanting to be farmers like the rest of their siblings, the two of them saw a need for a general store that was many miles from the nearest town. Since their store was along a fairly well-traveled two-lane highway, they could get goods delivered to them in a more-or-less timely manner.
They made a passable living over the years, raising three sons who left home as soon as they finished high school leaving Marjorie and Fred alone for several decades in their store with its cramped living space on second floor and no close neighbors. Since they both came from large families, relatives stopped by occasionally on their way to the nearest city to shop. When Fred became ill, Marjorie cared for him until she couldn't anymore. His brother took him to the hospital where he died.
Marjorie was alone.
Being alone with nobody to talk to for days and weeks at a time except the few customers who stopped in and found little or nothing of interest on the store shelves, Marjorie became more and more isolated. She forgot to order fresh bread, other new supplies and above all, cigarettes. Customers rarely, if ever, came back. When winter arrived, she stayed upstairs in her bed covered with wool blankets for much of the day. There was little to eat except the vegetables that she had gathered from the garden and either dried or canned for the two of them to eat through the winter. With Fred gone, Marjorie hoped that the jars of food might last until spring.
One day, when the snowstorms abated, there was a knock on the door. It was Marjorie's cousin Ellen. After a short conversation, Ellen said goodbye and went on her way. She had been shocked at what she had found. The store was dusty and in disarray. What little items were left on the shelves were old and outdated. Marjorie seemed vague and somewhat confused.
Knowing that she had no legal authority to intervene, Ellen phoned one of Marjorie's sons to tell him about his mother. He showed little interest. Ellen called Marjorie's granddaughter Sally, and finally got the response that she was looking for. Together, the two of them found an assisted living home in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the nearest city, that agreed to take Marjorie.
They knew that Marjorie would not want to move, so Ellen and Sally simply said that they were going to visit the home to see what she thought. When they arrived in LaCrosse, the director of the assisted living home took over. She asked Ellen and Sally to wait in the lounge while she gave Marjorie a personal tour. In a little while, she came back alone and told the two women to leave and not come back for a couple of weeks, that Marjorie would be fine.
Two weeks later, Ellen and Sally returned to the assisted living home. What they found surprised them and showed that their trust in this director had been well placed. Marjorie had completely acclimated to the community. She loved her warm cozy little room and, especially, her new job waiting on tables at mealtime. Marjorie had spent a lifetime serving customers, caring for husband and children, and this new role awakened her gregarious self. She introduced Ellen and Sally to her new friends among the residents, and said nothing about having been left there on her own. She had already forgotten.
Assisted living homes were a new concept in those days, and many were developed by individuals who turned their own houses into care facilities for disabled people who could pay for room, board, and care. These places were neither licensed, nor supervised.
In other cases, families welcomed their elderly relatives to live with them. Edna who was married to my Uncle Charles was raising four children of her own, accepted an orphaned niece into their home, and cared for my grandfather Carl in his declining years. When Edna's parents became senile and could no longer live alone, she cared for them too. Although the farmhouse had three bedrooms upstairs and one downstairs, Edna and Charles gave up their downstairs bedroom and put both of Edna's parents in its double bed so as to care for them more easily.
Well, "easily" is probably not the best way to describe it. There was no indoor plumbing, hence no bathroom. My Grandpa Carl carried his overnight pail down the stairs every morning for emptying. Edna's parents were bedridden and incontinent, and the smell emanating from that bedroom wafted throughout the downstairs no matter how often they tried to change the sheets. It wasn't exactly fun to visit that household, and nobody who did, stayed very long. After a couple of years, Edna's parents died, and normality returned.
Some offspring were indifferent to the plight of elderly parents, or were in denial, or just didn't know what to do, so they did nothing.
In some cases, elderly people depended on neighbors to give occasional help which they did willingly, until that was no longer feasible.
Suicide was a solution if a person had lost their spouse, could no longer maintain the farm, and was too far from town to get help. It was better than starving to death, right?
We've come a long way since those "good 'ol days." Slowly, slowly, humankind is learning to create a society that values its elders and the contributions that they have made. We have Medicare and Social Security for those who worked hard throughout their lives and paid into these government programs. We still have a long way to go to create a just society for all our people, and we always have to remain vigilant to protect ourselves from those who don't yet recognize that we're better together than we are apart.