I read this book on aging quite a while before I knew that there was a film of it, leave alone that it had won all those Oscars. It’s a testament to the way that the Nomadland book’s original material touched a real nerve. The film visually illustrates the difficulties of Nomadland’s forgotten tribe of older people, laid low in the Great Recession. And of course it’s a triumph for all those involved in the film, and especially all those who contributed their stories to the original book. Congratulations to all those people in both the book and the film whose stories highlight the plight of so many older people today.
Houseless not Homeless: the Story of the Travelling Tribe of Elderly
This book tells the stories of some of the many thousands of older people whose lives and expectations were destroyed by the crash of 2008 – 2010. They lost their jobs, their homes, their medical care, their savings, their pensions and often their families.
With the remnants of their assets, these people buy an RV or a caravan that they can tow. There are so many of them that they have become a new kind of wandering tribe – like the quiet children of forgotten hippies. The book tells us how they survive in America.
The author, journalist Jessica, befriended one of these people, Linda. We follow her journey from sleeping on her daughter’s sofa to acquiring a Jeep and a caravan which she calls the Squeeze Inn.
A Book on Aging: Linda’s Story
Linda takes to the road. We follow her from job to job, from low paid national park warden to the exhaustion of being an Amazon picker. Linda’s story tells the extraordinary tales of camaraderie and the building of a community that is supportive and welcoming.
Friends and colleagues brighten up Linda’s life. They attend the RV festivals where it feels safe for these people to have fun and feel normal (run in real life by Bob Wells). Sharing work experiences and expertise on their vans, we see how they make ends meet with the different low paid jobs on offer. And we observe the exploitation that these people are ‘free’ to enjoy.
The Insecurity of their ‘Freedom’
These people, mostly older people, proudly say that this way of life is a choice, an exercise of their freedom. They go to great lengths to emphasise that they are not homeless, even though they all rely on family and friends for a postal address to receive the benefits that keep them afloat. And it is certainly a better choice than ending up living on the streets of a city. It has a certain security in the midst of the stress of insecurity in that they can easily move to find work.
For example, Linda’s friend Silvianne describes herself like this.
“A not-quite-retirement-age baby boomer gives up her sticks ’n bricks former miner’s cabin, her three part-time jobs, and her attachment to any illusion of security in this tattered American dream”.
The Roles of Older People in Society
When you read a book on aging like this, the important questions about the role of older people in our societies hit you in the face. Consigned to the rubbish heap, when they haven’t even reached retirement age, these soon to retire and their older colleagues often go without medical care. Sometimes they don’t have enough to eat. Yet, they creatively think up ways of earning money, they work hard. The book details the exploitation of these vulnerable, mostly elderly people, with no job security, arbitrary pay reductions and horrendously long, physically gruelling hours of work for which they are not allowed to claim pay for all the hours they work.And they can’t complain, because they need their limited incomes to survive.
How is it that proud, often well qualified people live in conditions that in other countries are condemned as third world? Where there is nowhere for them to stop their RVs other than in a Walmart car park. Where, when they park on city streets, they try to disguise the fact that someone is actually living in their van. They dread being fined or driven out of the town as undesirables. No wonder they claim the desert as their homeland.
Sad but Hopeful? A Book on Breaking the Stereotypes of Aging
As a book on aging, I found it both sad and hopeful, heart-warming and depressing. It paints a picture of ‘retirement’ that is a far cry from the fat cat sitting on a great pension. The hard life is also a long way from the stereotype of the helpless elderly person, querulous, sick and demanding. It shows how these people have the courage to choose a way of life they can live with dignity despite their economic poverty. It demonstrates the energy and spirit of people proudly exercising their independence: a very fragile freedom, but theirs.
This book on aging is well worth reading. Arguably, Jessica Bruder is a latter-day Steinbeck, documenting a new generation of ‘Okies’. The grapes of wrath have never been more apparent.
Other Books on Aging You might Like.
Retirement Heaven or Hell, by Mike Drak