'Canterbury' Spins Tale of New Old Age in America In "A Place Called Canterbury," author Dudley Clendinen writes about the 400 days he spent at his mother's senior citizen apartment building/nursing home in Tampa, Fla., where the average age of its residents is 86. Clendinen became intimately involved with the lives of its residents and staff and weaved what has been described as a delightful soap opera.
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'Canterbury' Spins Tale of New Old Age in America

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'Canterbury' Spins Tale of New Old Age in America

'Canterbury' Spins Tale of New Old Age in America

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

When Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner was interviewed for his 80th birthday, he said 80 is the new 40. A recently released documentary film is further proof of Hefner's statement. "Young at Heart" follows the lives of a group of 80-somethings who travel the world and sing covers of popular songs by The Clash, Coldplay and the Bee-Gees.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Whether you're a brother or whether you're a mother you're staying alive, staying alive, feel the city breaking and everybody's shaking, you're staying alive...

HANSEN: It is also said that life doesn't end, it changes. After Dudley Clendinen and his father died, his mother moved into Canterbury Tower, an elderly apartment nursing home complex in Tampa, Florida. As his mother's declined, Clendinen began to spend most of his time there. A memoir of those years has just been published - "A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America."

And Dudley Clendinen joins us from member station WUSF in Tampa, Florida. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DUDLEY CLENDINEN (Author, "A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America"): Thank you. I'm tickled to be here. Nice to talk to you.

HANSEN: Tell us briefly kind of a thumbnail history of this place called Canterbury.

Mr. CLENDINEN: It was built in about 1977-78 and it's 125 rooms in a tower, like a good apartment hotel, and then there's a lone nursing wing of 60 beds. And it's called the life care or continuing care place. The simpler way to think of it being is the last stop.

HANSEN: What was a typical day like at this place when your mother was still, you know, moving around and actually living her life there?

Mr. CLENDINEN: That depends on who you're asking, who lives there. If you look at my mother's calendar for 1995, every day except 12 were filled with two or three or four things a day because that's the way she lived, even though she had several broken vertebrae and a fractured hip and some other infirmities all in that year.

But there are some people - the opposite might be a man named Lewis. He was a chemist and contributed to the production of valium and other things in those days. And he was afraid of germs and so he never left the building and he used implements to punch the buttons on the elevators and would avoid contact with people.

So, it depends on your life perspective. You can be as much a part of the world outside or live entirely within the confines of the building.

HANSEN: You know, of life, you write, it's a soap opera. I mean...


HANSEN: Yeah, what was an ongoing juicy story?

Mr. CLENDINEN: The ongoing story for me was how I was going to communicate with mother and what she needed and wanted. She had become what everybody else was afraid of, you know, the stroke victim. She was largely silent and just looked at me. And we had this continuing conversation in which I was more and more verbal and she was less and less.

The drama in the tower, in the apartment tower, was Mary and Wilbur because Wilbur Davis, who loved being the New Year's baby in a diaper and who loved being Santa Claus at Christmas, had become the most articulated example of dementia, I thought, I might ever see. He was physically very active. He was a sweet soul. He loved being social, he loved talking. He just had no idea what he was talking about.

And he and Mary observed the cocktail hour. Other people would come for cocktails and he would insist on making the drinks, which if he might actually made might drink himself, which drove people crazy and people quit coming for cocktails. Those are the light stories.

But the most serious part was how was she going to treat this long relationship because she said he is my only company, he has always been my company. We've been together for 68 years. And that's the question, you know, when one spouse begins to sort of become less and less competent. And you know the nursing wing is just down the hall and through three halls. How in the world do you make that decision?

HANSEN: And Wilbur has to be separated from Mary and you write about him - I mean, every time the elevator door opened he thought that she would be coming through?

Mr. CLENDINEN: He thought she'd be coming through. She might leave the room for a moment and then he would miss her. He might look in the other direction and she might be sitting on the couch and he in a chair and he looked in the other direction and missed her and went out the door and began looking for her.

And, you know, he was a very loveable soul and people indulged him because they were all in that boat of old age together. You know, they were all declining in one way or another, and that's the tension.

It's modeled in a way on a book that John D. McDonald did years ago on a condominium building based in Sarasota called The Condominium. And the catalyst then was a hurricane which came bearing down on the condominium building and all the people who lived in it. In this case it's a building filled with people from different parts of the country and the world and the catalyst is death looming or incompetence, old age bearing down on them.

HANSEN: Have any of the current residents of Canterbury read this book?

Mr. CLENDINEN: Oh, they've almost all read it at this point. And...

HANSEN: You getting reviews?

Mr. CLENDINEN: Yeah, I am. And I had a lot of concern about it, of course, but it is a funny, tender, surprisingly rich and imaginative book. And it has all kinds of funny stories. Mary told half the building my mother was dead and we all sort of mourned her. She was in fact watching Guy Lombardo on TV and I said I didn't know Guy Lombardo was still alive and the activities director said at Canterbury he is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: And thereby hang many, many tales.


HANSEN: How do you feel about growing old now?

Mr. CLENDINEN: I feel wonderful having spent this time with my mother. It was nine years of far more intimate period of time than I would have ever have had if she had not lived so long and declined in way that needed me. When she finally died and gave the last chapter that this book needed, it left me completely at rest having spent so much time with her.

And also left me at rest with my own age. I'm now old enough to move into Canterbury.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CLENDINEN: I've been writing this for seven years. You know, in another 20 years I may go there.

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. CLENDINEN: Or someplace.


Mr. CLENDINEN: Because the two - yeah - the two things that my friends and I talk about is the fact in these last ten or fifteen years is the fact that, a, our parents are driving us crazy; they're getting old, we don't know how long they're going to last. We love them and they worry us and we've got to figure how to help.

And, b, where are we going to go? And a place like Canterbury could be it.

HANSEN: Dudley Clendinen is the author of "A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America," published by Viking. He spoke to us from the studio of member station WUSF in Tampa, Florida. Thank you so much.

Mr. CLENDINEN: Thank you, Liane, very much.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I'm going nowhere, somebody help me. Somebody help me, yeah. I'm going nowhere, somebody help me, yeah. I'm staying alive. I'm staying alive.

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