I recently spent time with my mother at the assisted-living facility where she now lives. After 85 years, most of which was spent as independently as possible, she has moved to a place where her independence is limited. She minces no words when offering her opinion on the situation — she is confined, she is resigned, she misses her home. My mother gave me a tour of the place, showing me the hallways with each door decorated with wreaths, the courtyard with benches and bird feeders and the dining room, where the residents share all of their meals. We made ourselves at home in the main lobby, where wing back chairs and comfortable sofas allow people to gather for chatting or reading. I understand a few residents with good eyesight will sometimes read the newspaper to those who struggle to make out the small print. SHARED LUNCH It happened to be my mother’s birthday that day, and the residents sang to her as she blew out the candle on her cupcake. We shared lunch with her usual tablemates, chatted about the weather and made note of the afternoon activity, a penny-pitch game in the recreation room. After a plate of fried catfish and darned good squash casserole — this is Georgia, after all — people helped each other as they saw someone in need of help, either maneuvering a walker or wheel chair or just putting one foot in front of the other. And they went about the business of occupying the afternoon. There must have been a dozen people gathered for the penny-pitch game. The activities director had set a canvas mat on the floor marked with numbered squares, and on each square was a prize of some sort. The object of the game was to stand on the marker, call out the square you wanted to hit and pitch a penny. If your coin landed on your intended square, you would receive the prize; which might have been a box of tissues, a pack of gum or a large-print crossword book. We all sat in a semi-circle and took turns pitching pennies. If one of us got the prize, we’d all cheer; and if one of us missed the square, we’d offer consoling remarks. “It’s OK, honey. Maybe next time.” And then a gentleman named Carl stood on the mark and readied his arm for the throw. He pondered out loud which object he’d like more than the others, and he hemmed and hawed and rubbed his chin until, finally, I barked, “Go for the gum, Carl!” That seemed to suit him, and he made the mark and pocketed his prize with pride. Carl had enlisted in the Army as a young man but was discharged for medical reasons, and being a strapping man with plenty of ambition, he went on to play for the New York Giants. It’s difficult to see the Carl of the 1950s in the Carl of 2011, but if you watch him interact with his neighbors, you can still see the team player, the encouraging sportsman. SOLITARY LIVES As I watched these people in their 80s and 90s learn to live and play together, I admired their communal spirit. In our culture at least, we begin our lives communally, learning in large groups and playing games in semi-circles. But something happens as we become adults, and we adopt more solitary lifestyles, bragging about our independence as if it were a virtue and making heroes out of those who forge their own trails or beat their own drums. But in our final years, we join forces again, recognizing the strength that lies in numbers. We rediscover the benefit of forming compassionate tribes, and even my mother who pines for her old home can accept encouragement from others without having to relinquish her personal sovereignty. I believe we could do with more assisted living between being young and being old, with a few more semi-circles of support. And I believe that regardless of age, standing side by side can bolster us in our successes and shore us up against the worst of it. Because really, who couldn’t do with more cheering on their behalf? “Go for the gum, Carl! Go for the gum!” Robyn Martins is a correspondent for The Times-Reporter.