How Do You Want to Die (And Therefore, Live)?

How Do You Want to Die (And Therefore, Live)?

When you begin to design a house, the basic question is, “How do you want to live?” In our case it was, “How do you want to die?” 

No judgement if you stop reading here. Even with the let-it-all-hang-out Boomers stepping up to this life stage, it’s not something we want to speak of much beyond, “being surrounded by family” and “no regrets”. But “How do you want to die?” became for us a most useful, optimistic and life-giving query, and the birth of a building company. 

Perhaps I’m like someone who grew up in the funeral business—comfortable with the uncomfortable. My paternal grandmother developed early-onset Alzheimer’s when I was a preteen. My mom cared for her in our home and in the one we bought for her two doors down from ours. Then I watched my mom caretake both of her parents, who already lived next door. Aging and dying people were an integral and normal part of our family. As was the difficulty they had getting around our old houses and being bathed in the tiny baths. 

When our aged were finally at rest, my parents retired to ten acres at the back of a canyon in a beautiful part of the Central Coast, 250 miles away from their three children. All of whom had their own businesses, and therefore no paid vacation time. Or any vacation time, actually. The choice surprised me. It’s a gorgeous piece of property and they built a magnificent house on it. Yet given that my parents were caretakers while they were child-raisers, why did they set things up like this? Did they believe, despite decades of evidence, that age wouldn’t happen to them? 

I understand. I do. 

My vibrant and beautiful mother died suddenly in 2009, and my dad found himself alone on that beautiful ten acres with his two dogs, 250 miles away from his three children (have I mentioned that already?). It would soon be time for him to come home. But to where? 

It’s a question thousands of families ask every day. 

Facility? No. Caretaking in-home? Yes. Which home? Close to his children. That meant Fresno. That meant finding a place where he could have his dogs, walk in the neighborhood, and have an easy time getting around if he were employing a walker or wheelchair. There were no homes that fit this description that didn’t require tens of thousands of dollars of remodeling to accommodate the inevitability of life and what it does to our bodies. So we set out to build an efficient container for this bit of our dad’s time. We found land. We hired an architect. We began. 

Let me clarify that the “How do ya wanna die?” question was one I asked myself, not my dad. Like I said, it’s not a query everyone is up to. Where I was going was, “What room are you in? What is the light like? Is there something beautiful to look at? Can that family, which you want to be surrounded by, even fit in your room? Never mind gather comfortably around your bed? Where is the dog???” Having watched people die, I put those questions to myself. Maybe now you will also. Where in the exact moment—caregiver’s latex gloves on the nightstand, pear tree out the window confettied in blossoms, CNN on TV, the dog yawning, silhouetted against dust motes in the sunlight—is this going to happen? 

What emerged to engage me and cause me to found this company, was that we discovered that the features we incorporated into the house to support aging were also ones that enhanced life at any age. The wide doorways and space for turning wheelchairs and walkers also accommodate a slew of kids and pets. Creating a view that would be life-sustaining for a bedridden person also enhances the experience of a mobile one. The open, curbless showers and grab bars? Kids can hold on, and the dog can be leashed, while they’re being washed. And if you—the youthful, able-bodied—think grab bars aren’t sexy, you’re Fifty Shades short of an imagination. Or you haven’t yet had a snowboarding accident that left you in crutches. 

Old Doats With Jay
Old Doats with Jay.

Legacy also came into play. After we’ve moved on, our buildings stand as symbols of what we believed. Individuals and societies are considered in light of the remaining evidence, which is usually architecture (or lack thereof). My dad was an early-adopter of recycling, took a course in sustainable building in the 70’s, and was an avid home remodeler. My parents lived in Japan and Europe in the early 1960’s and collected classic midcentury art and furniture that they kept all their lives. The house became midcentury-inspired, all-electric and entirely solar-powered. (There were other less noble reasons for these green features, to which we’ll admit in a future missive). My parents’ lesson was, invest in the best you can afford at the time and consume little. The sister of “How do you wanna die?” is “What do you wanna leave behind?” What do you? Just like “being surrounded by family” and “no regrets,” there are the usual suspects. But seriously, the very next day after you move on out, what are people going to find, and be left with?

It’s all a damned circle, as we know. You ask “How you want to die?” and you end up with, “How you want to live?”  You ask, “How do I want to relate to a house?” and you get, “How does my house relate me, my body, and therefore how does it relate to the larger body, the community, the earth?” There is much here. 

Pax Domus homes have a lot going on—midcentury design, universal features, energy independence—because LIFE has a lot going on. I wanna leave behind homes where people feel they live, and have lived, their best lives, in harmony with their bodies, their families, nature and the community. 

This is where I’ll talk about that. And really sexy grab bars.