My brother and I had a plan for our aging parents. The plan was they would not age. They would never need to move from the house where they have lived for 45 years.
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They had a plan, too. They would manage just fine, thank you.
But this past year, as they both approached their 90th birthdays, their living situation grew rickety.
Mom has taken a few spills. Because she can’t get up by herself, and Dad can’t lift her, he’s had to call the fire department twice and a neighbor once to help her up. She’s getting forgetful, and her clothes aren’t as clean as they should be or once were.
Dad’s losing weight. When I asked if that was because of his new dentures, or because he wasn’t shopping, or because he didn’t have the energy to fix meals, he said, “Yes.” He gets worn out just going out front to get the paper. When he turns 90 this month his driver’s license will expire. He’ll stop driving, as he should. Their world will get even smaller.
My unwillingness to believe that my capable, independent parents were losing their hold did not prevent it.
Life is so rude.
This is why God created big brothers. Mine lives near our parents in Southern California. I live on the opposite coast in Florida, where it’s easier to believe — as Mom insists — they are managing just fine, thank you.
Seeing the storm clouds on the horizon, my older, wiser brother began The Conversation. For the past year he has been trying to convince our parents — and me — that they would be much better off — safer, happier, healthier — in a home with some help.
Dad listened with his characteristic, calibrated reason.
Mom listened with her characteristic pre-formed opinion: “I’m sure these places are nice but we’re managing just fine, thank you.”
To me ‘we’ was the operative word. As long as they had each other they had a cross check system in place. Dad’s vision is poor, so Mom distributes the pills. When Mom falls Dad gets her up. It works somehow, if precariously.
“What will happen when one of them goes first?” my brother asks me.
“What do you mean when one of them goes?” I say, sounding like Mom.
“We would have to instantly move the other one into assisted living, and that would be more traumatic. It would be better to move them together.”
“What about their domestic routines?” I ask. He makes the coffee; she pours the cereal. He makes the bed; she folds the laundry. They take their tea on the patio and watch the birds at the feeder.
“What about their safety and socialization?”
My brother took Dad to see some assisted living centers around town. Dad warmed to the idea of a social life, cooked meals, and no house and yard to maintain. They weighed factors like proximity to church and doctors, cost, levels of care and vibe. Some centers felt like country clubs; others looked so downtrodden my brother and Dad didn’t get beyond the parking lot.
After a few field trips, they found a center that felt as right as one could feel. The residents and staff seemed happy. The place had beautiful grounds, a gym, a nice dining room and an available corner apartment that overlooked the well-kept gardens.
They brought mom out and had lunch there.
“This is nice but we’re managing just fine, thank you.”
“I put a deposit down,” Dad tells me.
“How do you feel about that?” I ask.
“Queasy,” he says.
“We’re going to try it for a couple of months,” he tells Mom. He’s been telling her for weeks, because she forgets, and who can blame her?
“But we’re managing just fine.”
“No one’s selling the house,” he assures her, which is true. “We can always come back,” which is probably not.
“But we’re managing just fine,” she says. “Aren’t we?”
The literature outlining the criteria for when a parent needs assisted living bulldozed any remaining doubts I’d been harboring. As I evaluated whether this move was right for my elderly parents I checked every box. For anyone else facing a similar situation here’s what to consider:
Safety. If they’ve had falls, driving mishap,, or bruises or cuts they’d rather you not know about, more support is in their best interest.
Health. Failing eyesight, poor balance, forgetfulness, low stamina, poor health or a combination are indications a parent would benefit from more assistance in daily living.
Hygiene. A change in hygiene habits is often a sign parents need help — the kind they are unlikely to ask for. If you notice your once impeccably dressed parent is wearing the same clothes over and over, and not noticing when they’re dirty, gently suggest they may need some help with their daily personal care.
Housekeeping. If their dishes or laundry are not getting done, the corners of their home have cobwebs, and the housework in their previously well-managed place is sliding, living on their own may be neither hygienic nor safe.
Meals. If they’re losing weight, not getting to the grocery store, or have spoiled food in their refrigerator, a place that provides regular balanced meals could greatly enhance and sustain their lives.
Social life. As people age their circle of friends often diminishes. My parents’ once bustling social life has dwindled to the point where they rarely get out. A good assisted living center can offer stimulation and social activities that can improve quality of life and mental well-being.
As my parents often said, the right choice and the easy choice are rarely the same.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.