Three meals a day are served in the dining room at the independent living facility where I live. Recently at lunchtime I noticed a new resident sitting alone. After I asked her if I could join her, I introduced myself and she told me her name. When I asked where she had lived before coming here, she started to answer, and then tears flowed. She hid her face with her napkin for a moment until she was able to talk.
She told me a variation of a story I have heard over and over since I moved into this place. The new resident (I’ll call her Lily) was living near Boise, Idaho, when her husband, Carl, died two months earlier. Their children, let’s call them Rob, John and Debbie, came for the funeral and stayed for a few days before they had to go back to work. Obviously, they had the late night discussion about “What if Mom falls in the night?” and “What if she has a stroke and no one rescues her?” Questions that loving children ask.
Debbie insisted that Lily visit her for a while, so Lily’s clothes, make-up and toiletries were packed into the trunk of Debbie’s Mazda before they drove to Debbie’s home in Washington for a nice visit.
In the meantime, Rob and John packed into a large U-Haul the items necessary for Lily’s new home in Washington and then immediately drove to Debbie’s home. When she saw her sons, Lily was pleased, but much less pleased when they took her directly to the retirement home and told her she would be living there — because they were concerned about her safety, because meals would be provided so she would eat healthy food, because if she fell or was sick there would be people around to help her, because there were activities like bingo and book club and musicians so she wouldn’t be lonely.
Stunned, Lily sat in a chair and watched her furniture being arranged in her new apartment. Her Victorian sofa was much too big, but Rob said he would buy a smaller love seat. The day ended with boxes piled in closets and in the corners of her bedroom, with an assurance from Debbie that she would be back the next weekend to “get her settled in.” When Lily and I spoke, Debbie had stopped by to see her but so far hadn’t found time to unpack the boxes.
People are living longer today, and they may need to be housed in apartments, but consider the following. (I’ll call the parent Mom because most of the elderly are women.) Absolutely let Mom choose the apartment. Does she want first floor, third floor, a balcony, kitchen, one or two bedrooms? Are there enough closets? She will probably live with this decision for many years.
Before moving, work with a floor plan while discussing where furniture will be placed, measuring each item before it is moved. Let her decide to give up the piano if it means she can’t have her recliner. It’s very important to let Mom decide what to pack. One woman told me her kids packed a 12-place setting of Haviland dishes and sterling silverware, which only take up cupboard space. In another case a daughter got rid of a much-read King James Bible, which had been a confirmation gift for her mother, and replaced the personal Bible with a nice leather-bound Revised Standard Version. Birthday flowers arrive but there is no vase. It’s a bit chilly for a walk outside, but the heavy, cream-colored sweater is missing.
If Mom has a cat or dog, where should it live? Or can Mom have it in her apartment? In most places big dogs are discouraged, but lots of tiny fluffy dogs as well as all kinds of cats live with their owners in the kind of residences we are discussing. However, adopting a new animal to keep Mom company needs consideration. Whether inside or outside, dogs need to be walked. Is Mom’s balance good enough to pick up dog poop? Where does the cat’s litter box live?
Does she have a car? Is she a safe driver? Sure, a family member will drive her, but only at certain times. Does the facility have a bus or taxi service? Is it free?
Consider items she might need: a shower chair that can be raised and lowered, a toilet riser, a walker, even a wheelchair. In a building big enough to house around 100 people, halls are long and difficult to maneuver with a walker or crutches. Today many elderly people use power wheelchairs to move long distances. Some of these wheelchairs will easily park at a dining table.
If Mom has a computer, make certain she knows how to order from grocery stores and Amazon, and how to email or text you and her friends. Make certain the in-house Wi-Fi provides plenty of channels, especially movie channels. If not, arrange other providers.
Once Mom is settled into an independent living facility, what can her offspring bring her? Don’t give her things that “sit around” — there is no extra space in these apartments. One friend complains that her daughter insists on bringing food; she has a bag in her closet full of crackers and chips and sodas. With three meals a day provided there is little need for extra food. Gift a book you have read so you can discuss it with her or bring two servings of a favorite dessert to eat with coffee, creating a chance for you and your mom to talk and remember, and laugh.
Some elderly people really like independent living housing. They enjoy having their lives simplified. Others complain that they are in prison because their children don’t want them around anymore.
My dad often said that if you get up in the morning and look in a mirror and there’s somebody there, it’s a good day.
Award-winning columnist Phyllis Henry lives in Gig Harbor.
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