Newspaper letters shed light on people's opinions about long-term care during the Depression

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Old people should live alone. At least, that was the general thinking back in the 1930s.

I have learned that from a series of reprinted letters that my editor John O'Connor discovered at a public library in suburban Chicago. (If you want to unearth a literary treasure, John, an avid reader, is your man.)

And this fragile but still intact softcover book is a treasure. It comes from “The Women's Pages” (now there's an anachronism) from a long-gone daily newspaper called “The Chicago Daily News.” It is called “Where Do You think Elderly People Should Live to Be Happiest?” It was published in 1937.

This faded green work, which cost 25 cents, offers 61 short letters from readers who answered the question, “Just where do you think elderly people should live to be happiest?”

The general consensus? Alone. As the foreword notes, “The opinion expressed by the majority of the writers, both young and old, is that elderly people should live alone to find genuine happiness during the last years of life.”

What is delightful about this book is the range of opinions provided. The responses touch on themes that still ring true today: dignity, privacy and the meaning of happiness.

Readers talked about their experiences of moving in with their children and feeling like a burden. Others talked about the joy they felt in having spaces—even small ones—to themselves and the chance to think freely and reminisce. 

But not everyone thought older people should live on their own. Some thought that "the elderly" should live with their families to avoid isolation and feel more connected with their children and grandchildren.

And some thought, if medically necessary, “institutions” were the best place to be.

I found it comforting and enjoyable to read such candid and honest opinions. (These letters are just a sampling, according to the foreword, from hundreds that poured into the newspaper in response to the question. Now there's a "Reader Poll" response for you!)

The letters are especially interesting because they offer a sense of the period. There were several references to “spinster” sisters who took care of their parents. Some talked about losing their wealth in the Great Depression.

And then, of course, the biggest giveaway of the era: One woman writes of herself and husband, “We have very little money to do with, but when you are nearing 60 you don't ask an awful lot from life, as you have had everything and are happy to have peace and contentment.”

It may be hard to fathom, but at one time 60 was considered old!

I wish I could send you a link to the whole book, but I fear it's out of print (and likely didn't make it into cyberspace). So in lieu of that, I leave you with Letter No. 17. Enjoy!

“I live alone, but in the house of my son-in-law and daughter. I have two rooms—a living room, in which I have my books, house plants, fish, even snails, pictures, easy chairs, dresser, bed, tables, radiant heat, if at any time it is not warm enough, and a large closet for clothes.

“In the kitchen there is a three-burner gas range, oven, ice box, tables, many drawers and a large cupboard with shelves on which are all kinds of dishes and all the different canned goods that I like, and, in a vegetable container, various vegetables fresh and in season.

“When I wish to arise in the morning I do so, be it early or late, cook what I wish to eat, when I want it and as I want it.

“After my morning work, I read or sew, take a walk, eat lunch, read some more, cook dinner and, after eating, read the evening paper, and at 7 go to the living room and talk with the family, listen to the radio, visit with anyone who comes in, and at nine return to my rooms and read until I am sleepy or watch the young people roller skate in the street, then retire. Sundays we ride in the car all around as we like.

“In this way I am free, contented, happy and enjoying life. I have friends who live with their children, first one, then another, no permanent home; others who live in institutions, but they are not so contented as I am.”

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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