Old Man, Look at My Life*

Elder Care HomesSince the beginning of the 20th Century, nursing homes and care homes for the elderly have been a part of the social and cultural landscape in a lot of places. They are by no means a universal phenomenon of course; in a lot of cultures, families see it as their responsibility to care for the elderly personally. In fact, that cultural difference is the stuff of a post in and of itself. But there are many cultures in which elder care homes have become a part of life. The people who are in such homes have a lot of wisdom and history to offer, and sometimes, they have their own secrets too. What’s more, they have the time and perspective to notice things. So it’s not surprising that we see such homes in crime fiction. 

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, for instance, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee is on the trail of the person who killed Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who had recently moved to the Reservation. At the same time,  Chee’s been looking for sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s gone missing from the school she attends. Chee comes to believe that the two cases are related when it turns out that Sosi is distant kin to Gorman. The search for answers leads Chee to Los Angeles, and to one of the last places Gorman was seen before he left for the Reservation. Nearby is an elder care home, and Chee notices that several of the residents spend time outdoors and might have seen something useful. It turns out that he’s right, and he gets a valuable clue from what he’s told. This story also presents an interesting perspective as Chee reflects on the difference between the way the elderly are cared for in the dominant-culture community, and the way they are cared for in his own Navajo community.

The decision to move, or to move a loved one, into an elder care home is not an easy one. And once the decision has been put into motion, so to speak, that doesn’t mean everything runs smoothly. We see that, for instance, in Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are. TV presenter Frank Allcroft has hit a sort of plateau in his life. He’s happily married and has a close relationship with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s facing some challenges, one of which is the sudden death of his mentor and predecessor Phil Smedway. Smedway was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was jogging. But a visit to the site where the tragedy occurred suggests to Allcroft that maybe this wasn’t an accident. The road is straight and clear, with plenty of room for even a sleepy or drunk driver to swerve to avoid Smedway. And the weather was clear at the time of the incident, so visibility wouldn’t have been a problem. At the same time as Allcroft starts asking questions about what happened to Smedway, he’s dealing with a complicated relationship with his mother. She is unhappy adjusting to life in the elder care home where she lives, and Allcroft, of course, feels a sense of guilt that she is there at all. Although this plot thread doesn’t involve a crime, it does give the reader a look at how difficult it is to decide that a care home is necessary, and to choose which home is the right one. It also gives the reader a sense of the way families deal with the issues that come up after a loved one has moved to an elder care home.

We see those issues too, by the way, in Elizabeth George’s novels featuring Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers. In a story arc in these novels, Havers comes to the realisation that she can no longer care for her mother, and she doesn’t have the funds to arrange for her to be in the kind of top-of-the-line home that would give Havers peace of mind. It’s not an easy situation, and George doesn’t make light of it.

James W. Fuerst’s Huge introduces us to twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls. He has his issues and problems, but what he wants more than anything is to be a detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who stole the sign from the property of the elder care home where she lives. One of the steps Huge takes is to talk to some of the home’s residents and employees. He doesn’t get a vast number of clues from his interviews, but readers get to see a bit of life in an elder care home of the time (the novel is set in the 1980s). And although there are challenges and issues, it’s not portrayed as an unpleasant place.

Neither is the retirement home in Mike Befeler’s Retirement Homes are Murder. In that novel, the first of his ‘geezer lit.’ novels, Paul Jacobson has retired to an elder care community in Hawai’I after the death of his beloved wife. He makes a group of friends who turn out to be very helpful when Jacobson is accused of murder. One day, he finds the body of fellow resident Marshall Tiegan stuffed into a trash chute. Jacobson is a likely suspect, since there was no love lost between him and the victim. What’s more, Jacobson has serious short-term memory loss. He can’t remember at any given time what happened the day before, or even a short time before. One of his friends encourages him to keep a journal in which he writes down everything he does, so that he can look back at it as a reminder. That journal helps both to clear Jacobson’s name and to lead to Tiegan’s killer. In this novel, we see the daily ‘ins and outs’ of life in a modern elder care environment. We also see how the residents can form interesting friendships with each other, and a sense of community.

In Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team investigate the grisly discovery of a left food clad in a training shoe. Then another, similar, discovery is made. And another. There’s no easy way to identify the feet, so the team starts by looking for anyone who’s disappeared from the area. Interestingly, of the group of people who have gone missing in the last year, four of them are from the same elder care home. Then there’s another disappearance, also related to the home. The home itself is well-run and managed, and there’s no evidence of abuse or neglect. In fact, it seems a good place. Wisting soon learns that there’s another bond among the residents who’ve gone missing. They’d known each other for sixty years, and had a connection that started during World War II. So these deaths could be related to past incidents. As Wisting and the team sort the case out, we get a bit of a look at the way elder care facilities are run, and about the long-term bonds that can form among the people who live in them. 

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series features Ash House, a retirement/elder care home run by Ethan Ash who later shares the responsibilities with Jared Lowe. Quant’s first encounter with Ash House is in Sundowner Ubuntu, when Clara Ridge hires him to find her son Matthew, whom she hasn’t seen for twenty years. It turns out that Matthew is a former lover of Ethan Ash’s so in the course of that investigation, Quant gets to know Ash and his daughter and he and Ash begin a relationship. Saying more about that will spoil an important story arc in this series. But Ash House plays a role in a few of Quant’s investigations. And it’s depicted as a warm, home-like sort of place – a place for the ‘swinging senior’ set, as Quant puts it.

Elder care facilities are an increasingly common part of a lot of cultures as the population ages. They offer a lot of benefits to families as well as many challenges, and as I say, they aren’t by any means embraced universally. But they are interwoven into our society, and so it makes sense that they are interwoven into crime fiction too. Which depictions have stayed in your memory?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Old Man. 


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth George, James W. Fuerst, Jørn Lier Horst, Mike Befeler, Tony Hillerman

18 responses to “Old Man, Look at My Life*

  1. Very glad you reminded me of a book! Diana O’Hehir wrote a crime story called Murder Never Forgets – main character is a woman whose father has Alzheimers and is moved into a special home, where things start going wrong. I thought it was really good, and always intended to follow up on the series, so now you have given me the push I need to do that. And I do recommend this one.

    • Moira – Thanks for the recommendation. And now you have reminded me of Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, in which the main character, Jennifer White, has Alzheimer’s and has to be moved to a special home. In the meantime, she could be guilty of the murder of her neighbour. If you haven’t read this one I recommend it. It’s not easy reading – some of it is very, very sad. But it’s compelling.

  2. Margot, I think one memorable example is Dorothy Bowers’ 1941 classic, “Fear and Miss Betony.” The book opens with Miss Betony, who lives in a kind of genteel poverty, considering her very limited options for her future. Again, this was 1941, and there weren’t that many paths available to a 61-year-old woman, except perhaps to seek shelter with some charity, a place where she could decay, if you will – kind of a forerunner of today’s assisted living home.
    But that is changed when Miss Betony receives a letter from an old pupil, Grace Aram. Grace runs a small school for young women now, and it is located in what used to be a nursing home. In fact, two of the elderly residents of that nursing home still live there, in the midst of the school. What is troubling Grace, however, is the peculiar things which seem to be happening there – including what may be the poisoning of one of those two elderly women. Miss Betony uncovers some amazing – and terrifying – secrets when she goes to that nursing home (now school). It’s often said to be Bowers’ best book, and the setting has a lot to do with that.

    • Les – Thank you for sharing that recommendation. I can well imagine how frightening it probably was at that time to think of where one might live (and how) when one couldn’t manage independently any more. And yes, I’m sure the setting has an awful lot to do with what makes the book compelling. Definitely one I should put on my list.

  3. I just picked up a copy of “Huge” from the library, and I’m a big fan of Mike Befeler’s series. I moved my mom into assisted living in May. It’s a wonderful facility and she likes it a lot, even found a couple of old friends living there. It would be easy to brainstorm a bunch of great ideas for mysteries though, just because of the variety of personalities, backgrounds, and inevitably, secrets of employees and residents.

    • Pat – I am so glad you’ve found a good place for your mom to live. If she’s happy and has a network of friends, that’s wonderful. And I’m sure it takes a load of stress from you to know that your mom is cared for and is content where she is. And you know, I think there’s a great deal of potential for good mysteries taking place in a retirement/assisted living place. As you say, there’s a mix of personalities, lots of histories and people’s secrets and more. Lots of possibility there!
      Oh, and I really do hope you’ll enjoy Huge.

  4. Margot: In “P” is for Peril by Sue Grafton the plot sees Kinsey Milhone probing the murky financial world of nursing homes. It was not good.

    In the Walt Longmire series by Craig Johnson the former Sheriff Lucian Connally resides in an assisted living facility. Walt enjoys going over to visit Lucian and play chess. In Death Without Company Lucian shakes up Walt when he claims fellow resident of the assisted living home, Mari Barojas, was murdered and follows up that she was his wife!

    In real life the nursing homes, none of which are called nursing homes, of our area are well designed inviting places for seniors.

    • Bill – I’m glad you mentioned Lucian. He’s a good character and I like the way he and Longmire interact. Thank you for filling in that gap that I left. And you’re right that there are of course novels in which the finances of those kinds of places are investigated. The Sue Grafton novel is one; so is Susan Wittig Albert’s Child Death, and I know there are others.
      In real life, it’s good to hear that the elder care places in your area are well-designed, comfortable places where a person can feel comfortable and at peace. It’s not an easy choice to make, and knowing the places are good ones must make it easier.

  5. Too close to home right now. My family in Alabama is moving my mother into an independent living residence soon. It does sound like an inviting place, as Bill says, and it is the right move, but emotions are running high.

    • Tracy – I can well imagine that emotions are running high. Even if the decision is the right one, and the place is a good place, it’s still a difficult choice. Besides everything else, it’s a major life change, and that can be hard.

  6. Like Tracvy this subject is a bit too close to home for me at the moment…am in the process of investigating places for my elderly parents – it’s a rotten process for all really and having looked at a lot of them in recent weeks I’m not in complete agreement with Bill that they’re all well designed or inviting – at least here in Oz there is a huge range of quality and even when intentions are the best the funding for the aged care sector is appallingly low.

    But you’re right they are an increasing feature of crime fiction, I just finished SEASON OF THE WITCH and the journalist at the centre of the story visits a ‘facility’ to talk to the mother of a woman who has died – the elderly woman suggests her daughter was murdered though everyone else thinks the death an accident.

    • Bernadette – It’s a wrenching process all the way and I don’t envy you having to deal with it. There’s a lot of range of quality of places in the States too, and as you say, even when the intentions are excellent, the funding…isn’t. There are some good places but it takes so much effort and as you say, the process is really difficult.
      Thanks for mentioning Season of the Witch. I remember you mentioned it on your Books of the Month post; I’ll be looking forward to reading your review.

  7. kathy d.

    There is a range of assisted living facilities in the U.S., and I’m sure, everywhere else. It is expensive over here for a decent facility. Luckily — and with my sister’s good investigative skills — we found a good residence in Massachusetts for out mother. They have so many activities I was exhausted reading the monthly bulletins, and they had musical performances and art shows. She made friends there and was so well taken care of that every medical problem was immediately followed up.
    My mother was a character who was a big snooty about people who weren’t from New York City and didn’t read the New York Times, but she did very well there and we didn’t have to worry about anything.
    It’s good to ask around and get references from friends so that family members aren’t taking a chance on placement, but that a place is well recommended.
    That said, I don’t know if I’d like to read this as a location in a mystery.
    Dead Peasants by Larry Thompson had a woman’s spouse living in a nursing home for health reasons.

    • Kathy- Thanks for sharing your own experience. I’m glad you were able to find a place where your mother could be happy and settled as well as safe and under good care. You make a good suggestion too about getting references and talking to people. One can often get very helpful information about places in that informal way. And finally, thanks for the recommendation of Dead Peasants. It sounds like a good example of the kind of thing I had in mind.

  8. What an interesting post, Margot. It’s also relevant to me although thank goodness my father is still fit and strong. I have a couple of scenes in a nursing home in the book I’ve been writing. I think I’ll give investigating your examples a miss. I’ve written what I’ve written – I might end up changing it!

    • Sarah – Oh I didn’t realise that a nursing home figures into your novel. I don’t blame you one bit for deciding to keep what you’ve already written, at least for now. There comes a point I think when what’s there is there and it’s time to leave things as they are. It’s good to hear your father is in good health – a load off your mind.

  9. This certainly something we can all relate to (or soon will) but I had never considered it from a crime fiction standpoint though hospitals and assorted clinics do dominate so many classic mysteries – thanks a lot.

    • Sergio – It is a reality of life for a lot of people, and increasingly so as the population ages. And you’re right; medical facilities are in so many crime fiction novels and series. There’s even a whole sub-genre devoted to that kind of mystery. It’s an effective atmosphere for a crime novel I think.

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