Senior Housing – Exile or ticket home?

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I noticed pictures of Mabel sailing and others of her standing near small airplanes in some kind of flight hat.  “I didn’t know you used to fly,” I said. “You must have been quite adventurous.”  “Back then I guess I was,” she said. “That was a long time ago.”

She was sitting, leaning forward, looking down, looking defeated, appearing even smaller than her 5’ 2.” She couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds.   She apparently had stopped doing housework. There were pastel-colored pajamas and bathrobes, empty plastic bags, towels and copies of People magazine scattered around the floor.

Because of the clutter, Mabel frequently fell. I asked her about hiring housecleaning and cooking help. “I can’t trust them,” she said.  “There was one that I liked, but she moved away.  It’s not that bad, I don’t think. Do you? I have my frozen dinners.” From the boxes in the garbage, it seemed like half a TV dinner a day had become her regular diet.

While Sylvia went upstairs to check the state of the bedrooms and bath, I asked Mabel, “Don’t you get bored here?  It seems lonely.”

She thought about it. “I have Days of Our Lives,” she replied. “I don’t like the newer shows that much. Sometimes Sylvia calls. Or one of her children.  But they’re getting big now. They have their own lives.” She brightened.  “I have the birds.” She fed birds twice a day from feeders and sometimes from her hands.  “Some of them have been coming for years. I feel like I know them. I don’t give them names, though. I’m not crazy.”

Every few weeks we’d have the same kind of conversation. I’d tell her about friends I knew who had moved into senior housing.  She was usually dismissive. “That’s good for her,” she would say about an acquaintance who had moved. “She’s always been a social butterfly.  It wouldn’t work for me.”

Because her sentences were becoming shorter and taking longer, Sylvia worried that Mabel might have Alzheimer’s. She took her mother for an evaluation. The doctor tested her and found no dementia.  “I think Mabel just needs more conversation,” she told us.  “She’s like someone who lives alone out in the country. What does she need words for?”

Sylvia and Mabel’s social worker agreed she would do better in an assisted living residence. In assisted living, she could have meals prepared and would meet new people. Sylvia found three that the family could afford, two of them in attractive, upscale Marin County settings.

Mabel wasn’t having any of it.  Falls or no, loneliness or no, hunger or no, she was determined to stay in her beloved house. She brought up the high cost of assisted living. The places Sylvia had found ran around $3200 / month, which the family could afford, but would involve their dipping into their retirement savings.  There were cheaper places (as low as $1500 / month) available, but they were much farther from Sylvia, smaller, and with fewer support services. Mabel said she wanted to save the family’s money for her grandchildren’s education.

What could we do at this impasse?  Finally Sylvia threatened to go to the County and seek guardianship of her mother.  This conflict was extremely hard on them, and for the next three months they hardly spoke to each other. 

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13 Responses to Senior Housing – Exile or ticket home?

  1. A provocative cliffhanger that begs the question: do the aged (but lucid) have the right to choose a life of isolation, melancholy, and even unhealthiness, as younger people do?

    (Ideally, I think, people of all ages should have people in their lives to intervene if they develop such tendencies. But freedom seems important, too.)

    • admin says:

      Good point, Maureen. I do think sometimes elders get moved against their will, and it’s usually not good for them. This time it worked out. I just want people to consider the possibility that making a change, even at very advanced age, is not necessarily the end and can lead to some good things. That’s why I posted Mabel’s story.

  2. Nice story. It even feels like a thriller sometimes…. what will happen?

  3. What a wonderful story. Looking at situations through someone else’s experience helps us imagine what we would or could do if that happened to us.

    You must be a wonderful nurse to many people. It takes understanding, patience and an ability to communicate in order to help people who don’t know they need help.

  4. linn says:

    Wonderful David. Older people really relish that kind of listening and allowing them to have choices in the decision process. I know my mother would have ignored us if we didn’t respond to her thoughts about what she wanted. And it’s a gift if there’s someone sweet and patient in an aging life to help them reflect on the possibilities ahead. Thanks for your strength and perceptive accounting of Sylvia and Mabel.

  5. At 62, with renal failure, and continuing declining health, I face the prospect of needing assisted living. It’s scarey, even when one reads such wonderful stories as this. Each new person you meet will not know your history, and telling it it may sound like a windbag bragging, when it is only personal history and a minor story of surviving. The best reason to tell it is that it becomes an affecting story like yours, David. How wonderfully sensative you are.

  6. Karen Rae Ferreira says:

    David, this is so important and you have managed to tell it like it is, with compassion and heart. Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place!

  7. Esther Roberts says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story as you have David. You write with such awareness and empathy that I feel I am “standing inside” your story and I am the silent listener. This is touching and inspiring! Thank you!

  8. Pat Gray says:

    This article is very meaningful and timely for me. My sister sounds just like the elderly mother in this story. She has her home full of memories and will not discuss the possibility that she needs more help. I tend to be bossy and tell her what I think she ought to do……! Lot of good that does! Thank you for carefully pointing out some positive ways to help my sister deal with her declining ability to care for herself.

  9. Toni Gilbert says:

    Will have to keep this story in mind if my time comes to go to an assisted care home. Truly. Toni

  10. David, this couldn’t possibly be more timely. We’re putting a deposit on an assisted living apartment this week for my mom. The last time she moved was 9o years ago, when she was 11 months old! I look forward to reading this and sharing it with my family.

  11. Ruth Goldston says:

    Thanks, David, this is a wonderful story. I work with older community dwelling adults in my practice, and talk about this kind of problem with them all the time. People of all ages, but especially older ones, do poorly when they’re so isolated, and I wish there were more and better housing options for those who may not need assisted living, but do need more other human beings in their lives on a daily basis. So much to think about…

  12. Cousin Ira's friend, Susie says:

    Your article on Senior Housing was incredibly sensitive and pertinent. Currently, I have an elderly mother who is in need of more consistent care and increased human contact. By emphatic choice she remains at home. Thank you for sharing your insights on this very relevant subject.

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