The only things worth talking about are the things you can’t talk about…so said my Dad many, many times in my life, generally when he wanted to give me “loving” feedback about something I did not want to hear.
There’s a very important, albeit difficult, topic floating around among many of my friends and acquaintances—their concern about their aging parents living alone at home and at risk of physical harm and social isolation. I’ve had three conversations in the last two days with peers concerned about their parents’ living situation and frustrated with their own inability to discuss the topic with them.
With the holidays upon us, many people will be gathering next week for family celebrations. Rather than make the usual small talk, perhaps it’s time to talk about this very real and impactful subject.
To help with the conversation…and to ease fears that it is a punishment or an acknowledgement of your (if you’re one of those parents on your own) or your parents’ demise…I am sharing with you below a blog that I wrote last year about my mom’s hugely successful transition from her family home to an independent living facility filled with social interaction, physical activity and a whole lot of peace of mind.
I had dinner with mom last week. She’s been in her new home for a little over a year, and she was complaining that she was so busy she didn’t have time for certain tasks…including calling me!
May my mom serve as an inspiration to you and your loved ones as she has been to me and our family and friends.
Here’s what I wrote last year…
“I don’t want to leave my home.”
“Only old people live there.”
“If I move into one of those places, I will lose my independence.”
How sad for the people who say these things because they don’t know what they’re missing at Camp Grandma.
The truth is, aging isn’t easy, especially when you’ve been lucky enough and strong enough to last a really long time. You’re generally healthy (considering your age), feel like you’re 20 years old in your head, and your memory is better than people half your age. So why would you want to move out of your family home where you’re comfortable, independent and surrounded by decades of memories only to move into a place with a whole bunch of old people that doesn’t feel like home?
Because it can be a whole lot better than that “awesome” place you call home. My mom just did it, and we all sleep better at night.
A friend’s mother, also around 90 years old, has refused to leave her family home where she raised her family and lived with her husband, even though she is hours away from her children and has to climb stairs every night to get to her bedroom. Until recently, she had been fortunate—but she took a tumble several weeks ago that left her with some broken bones, and now she is in a rehab facility. That is what we all fear when our elderly loved ones live alone.
Besides the risk of falling with no one around to help you get up, the truth is, being alone at home isn’t really so healthy or so fun. Many studies have shown that the more social interaction you have, the longer you’ll live and the healthier you’ll be. Isolation is debilitating to both your body and your brain.
My mom is very engaged in book clubs, synagogue and volunteer groups, and before the pandemic, she came to the office every day to respond to our special customer-service requests. Then COVID hit, and she was isolated. There was only so much Zooming she could take. Honestly, even pre-COVID, she had been on her own since my dad died in 2013. While she was busy with many clubs, classes and meetings, cooking and eating alone simply wasn’t fun.
My siblings and I had it easy. Mom is one very wise and self-aware woman who realized that she was tired of being alone. And after taking a few falls at home and when she was out and about, she realized that it might be better to be in a smaller, safer environment. So we found her an independent-living community nearby. Most people aren’t so lucky, and the topic of having a parent move from the family home to a safer and/or smaller space becomes a point of great debate and pain.
It took a lot of work for us to pare down the 60 years of memorabilia in mom’s four-bedroom home so that she could fit into her new one-bedroom apartment. She even bought new furniture (“I deserve a new bedroom set after 65 years”). She now is in what I fondly call “Camp Grandma” (or “Camp Grandpa” if you prefer).
Of course, some independent-living facilities are better than others when it comes to activities, food quality and resident services. But they likely all have more than what you have being alone at home.
We researched a number of places in the area for my mom, and they all had a long list of daily activities that included book clubs, concerts, lectures, exercise classes, movies—the options were endless. Residents were able to participate in all or none—it was entirely up to them, but they have options.
We narrowed the search to two places. One was more dated, the apartment kitchen was just a microwave, a sink and a small fridge, and the residents seemed less active.
The other had a full kitchen and lots of light, and everyone we passed in the hallways offered a warm greeting. At this one, Mom has the option of eating all of her meals in the dining rooms, or she can cook for herself whenever she wants. On move-in day, the facility staff left a platter of sandwiches in the fridge for us and a plate of delicious chocolate chip cookies. (It is a good thing I don’t live there, because those cookies were truly remarkable!)
Many people who are confronted with the decision to move are afraid of losing their freedom and living in “senior jail.” But in reality, a relatively healthy and independent person is simply moving to an apartment building that has far more offerings than regular apartments. My first apartment after college had laundry in the basement…period. Mom’s has a washer and dryer in her room, and she has access to a full dining room, gym, pool and lots of interesting activities.
If you or loved one fear the loss of independence, ask a few questions…
- Are you truly happy where you are now? I don’t mean “yeah it’s fine”…I mean, are you really enjoying life?
- Do you ever get scared living alone?
- Do you ever feel lonely? Are you able to interact with people every day?
- How would it be if you didn’t have to cook each night?
- How would it be if you had a choice of activities to engage in each day?
And then take a few tours. Some places will be nicer than others, but you have no idea what the options are until you gather information. I always recommend young people take phone calls from job recruiters—not because they’re interested in leaving their jobs, but because you always learn something and you don’t know what you don’t know. The same holds true here. Do some research…make a call…go for a visit. Even if you decide it’s not right today, things may change tomorrow or next week. Just ask my friend whose mother is in rehab. And frankly, it wasn’t until my mother took her most recent tumble on the sidewalk that she too decided it was time for a change.
I stopped by mom’s new apartment last week. She was downstairs, so I was alone for a few moments. The furniture was different, and certainly it wasn’t our family home, but the photos and her essence were there…and that’s where home is. Not the walls and floors or the street address, but the personality and the special mementos.
She’s ecstatic living in a place that is the right size for her and so busy we hardly talk to her. My siblings and I sleep far better at night knowing that she is engaged with others and in a far safer environment.
Thank you, Mom, for once again being a role model for how to age gracefully.