Senior Housing – Exile or ticket home?

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Sometimes, what seems like exile to a desert island can actually be a ticket home.  My friend Sylvia’s 82-year-old mother Mabel fought as hard as she could to stay in her suburban house. When poor health finally forced her to leave, she found a new life opening up where she least expected it.

Mabel loved that three bedroom colonial with the red trim, in a middle-class development on a hill south of San Francisco.  She had lived there for 45 years, raised two children, cared for her husband there until his death.  She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

The trouble was that Mabel’s world was folding in, until her house became her universe. Mabel had been a community college instructor before retirement. She had met regularly with students and other faculty on campus, but now she rarely saw anyone.  She had kept up with research in education, her field of expertise, but  in the last two years had stopped reading anything technical or difficult.  She had had to stop driving because of vision problems, and in the suburbs, a senior who can’t drive might as well be in jail. Either way, you’re not going anywhere.

Sylvia would visit Mabel once a week and didn’t like what she saw.  “Month by month, it seems like Mom is eating less,” she told me. “The place is more of a wreck. I’m afraid she is becoming confused.  I ask her about moving, but she just says, ‘I like it here.’”

Sylvia was 50 years old at the time, living in a cabin near the ocean, which would have been completely inaccessible for Mabel.  That was just as well for Sylvia, because she and her Mom didn’t get along. Mabel disapproved of Sylvia’s Bohemian lifestyle, her big earrings and loose-fitting clothes, while Sylvia found her mother opinionated and domineering. “She always thinks she know what I should do,” Sylvia complained. “She never  listens to what I think.”

Sometimes I would come with Sylvia, because I seemed to defuse the tension between her and her mother.  I would tell Mabel some jokes and ask her advice on whatever I was writing at the time.

Mabel admitted that the idea of moving terrified her.  “”I don’t know anybody any more,” she told me. “I don’t want to have to meet all these new people and get used to a new place and new food.  And I don’t want to lose my memories,” she said, looking at the pictures of her husband, children, parents and grandparents in their brass frames, distributed on every wall.

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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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