In Nomadland, a best picture award winning film, the protagonist, Fern (played by Frances McDormand), leaves her hometown after her husband dies and the town’s sole industry closes. She elects to be “houseless” and travels around the United States living in her van. She finds community – and essentially her new sense of home – by connecting with various nomads at her various stops. “See you down the road” is her catchphrase for those she encounters and leaves.
The movie is based on the nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century and it strikes a chord. It reveals the fragility of home. Fern was rooted until exogenous factors, including the whims of the global economy, turned her life upside-down, necessitating a change. It also highlights the difficulty in finding a new home and stable financial footing once uprooted, particularly for those middle-aged and older.
Home is a complicated construct. Home is not just our immediate physical space, but a composite of our country, region, metropolitan area, neighborhood, streets and physical dwelling, such as a house.
But home is more than a physical space. It has economic, psychological, and social dimensions. It is also a feeling. We are at our best when we have an attachment to home. A move from home should be gut-wrenching. It’s one of the reasons why moving from home to a health care facility can be so unnatural for ailing older adults (and one of the reasons our society should create more viable options to avoid such moves if they can be avoided.)
Discerning what home should be and feel like may be foreign for us in our modern age. It may be one of the reasons for society’s continued increase in loneliness and social disconnection. We know something is wrong, but we can’t quite place what it is.
The Downside of Modern Mobility
The nomadic lifestyle, despite largely falling out of popularity once society became agrarian, is starting to increase in prevalence in modern society. In the 1800s, 90% of the population lived on farms and one’s livelihood depended on the ability to feed your large family. Kids were required to work on the farm at a young age, and their future was likely linked to their land. It was a time that necessitated rootedness to place.
Our modern era has freed us of the shackles of agrarian life. Particularly during non-pandemic times, we can travel across the country or around the world and experience a wide breadth of cultures. Many of us, if so inclined, can pursue educational opportunities and employment almost anywhere in the world. And, with the advances in technology and the social acceptance of remote work, a number of us can choose where to live independent of where our employer is headquartered. What’s not to like?
However, maybe a life with few constraints, ironically, makes it harder to find home.
Where Do You Want to Be Buried?
Recently, I’ve been running an experiment by asking my middle-aged friends where they plan to be buried once they die. I use this question as a proxy to determine whether they have identified a particular place as home.
The results have surprised me. Few have an answer; many haven’t given it much thought. Some friends have lived in a particular location for over a decade while raising young kids, but don’t have a tie to their place. If an attractive job opens up elsewhere, these friends would move with little heartache. Such friends may live in a house, but do they have a home?
In contrast, one friend’s mom clearly found her home. Madison, Wisconsin was her home for decades. She was known and her identity was wrapped up in this place. Naturally, it’s also where she’s buried. After passing away this spring, her celebration of life attracted nearly 300 people.
Are you “Homeless”?
There are approximately half a million people without permanent shelter in the United States. Our society calls these people homeless. But I bet there are many millions more who, even with shelter, aren’t at home.
Are you one of these “homeless”?
We know that successful aging is more about lifestyle than DNA and the right home can help us find greater purpose, social connection, physical well-being and more. Home helps with all of this.
In Nomadland, I had this lingering sense that Fern didn’t want to be a nomad. She wanted to find a new home, but was unsuccessful. Oftentimes, as Fern found, it can be difficult to find a home, but home is worth the effort. The security, belonging, and comradery that comes with home is priceless. I hope for each of us can find home and becoming rooted to it. Our lives and society at large would be better for it.
Ryan is an expert speaker in the aging industry. Want to have Ryan speak at your event? Find out more.
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