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What To Do About Mom And Dad?
When her elderly in-laws could no longer take care of themselves, Jean Waters found herself in a challenging situation, trying to care for them long distance. Waters lives in Rancho Santa Fe — her husband’s parents live in Florida. After many trips back and forth, her family finally found an independent living facility in Naples where the couple is getting the extra help they need. “Fortunately, they love this place now,” says Waters. “But even the night before, his mother said, ‘I prayed I would die in my sleep so I didn’t have to go.’”
Dwight Wait and his two siblings found a different solution when their widowed mother could no longer live on her own. They finally persuaded her to give up her Connecticut home and move to California to be closer to family. Their mother, Alice, now lives in a Carlsbad retirement community. But for her, it has been a major adjustment. “It was very difficult. I missed my friends and connections,” she says. “The mailman, the grocery store people — after 37 years, I had lots of connections. Then, coming to a strange place where I knew no one, it was rough.”
For Nell and David Herzer, the solution wasn’t to move Nell’s aging parents, both in their 90s, from their Minnesota home. Instead, the Herzers, who were longtime North County residents, moved to Minnesota. “It is a great privilege to be able to be here and be close enough to help out daily,” says Nell. “They are now in an assisted living situation, but as you might imagine, there are new issues and challenges daily.”
These real-life scenarios represent different — and often difficult — answers to an age-old question: What to do about mom and dad when they can no longer live on their own? The answers will become even more painful as our population grows older. An estimated 39 million people in the U.S. are now 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2030, that number is expected to balloon to more than 72 million — by then, the last of the baby boomers will have turned 65.
“Family caregiving has become a predictable crisis for Americans in middle and later life,” writes Gail Sheehy, author of Passages in Caregiving. Predictable doesn’t make it any easier, however. The average caregiver is a working woman in her late 40s, with at least one child still at home, a stressed-out member of the so-called “sandwich generation.”
“For adult children, this whole process is so daunting,” says Patricia Will, founder of Belmont Village Senior Living, with 20 retirement communities around the country. “What do I need? What do I do? How do I talk to mom about it? The only thing worse is getting seniors to surrender their car keys.”
Fortunately, there are resources to help adult children and their parents navigate the maze of options. Sheehy’s book offers advice she’s gleaned from interviewing hundreds of caregivers. Another good source is Chet Cunningham’s Caring for Your Aging Parents: the Caregiver’s Handbook. Cunningham recommends sitting down and having a “long talk” with your parents about their health and lifestyle options. The idea is to do some thoughtful pre-planning now to avoid making hasty decisions later. A certified professional care manager can assess whether parents can remain in their homes with assistance from friends and family, elder care agencies, professional in-home care, or adult day care services. (www.caremanager.org)
For seniors who function well on their own, but would like more help as they age, one option is University Village, an 18-acre retirement community that offers independent living in garden-style apartments or in a new hotel-style building with a lobby and party room. It is designed especially for seniors with emergency pull cords; wide, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and showers; ample closets; and storage facilities. It’s also the first facility in San Diego to offer GE’s QuietCare, advanced motion sensor technology to ensure that seniors are safe. “I think kids should really think ‘would I want to live there myself?’” suggests owner Christine Handley. “I’ve been in some that are pretty bad. I think if you check around, you can find some housing at a good price, but you have to do your homework.”
Close to freeways and hospitals, University City Village has a clubhouse with a fitness room, gift shop and beauty salon, a pool and nearby nine-hole golf course. Residents can take advantage of a la carte services such as cleaning, shopping, and meal delivery.
“It’s affordable,” says Handley. “Very few senior retirement communities are a la carte. They’re usually one price for everything and you are paying for things you may not need.” She also says there is a vast array of senior services for little or no cost, like the Jewish Family Service Center’s “On the Go” transportation program.
But when living alone, even with help, or with a family member are not viable options, it may be time to consider some form of assisted living facility, whether it’s to buy or to rent. The selling point for many families is that facilities may offer a continuum of care or more help as residents need it, from bathing and dressing to skilled nursing. Once they move into the complex, they may never have to leave.
Finding the right facility for a parent, at a price families can afford, is not just a challenge but an opportunity to provide services and socialization that your elderly parent may have long needed, insists Will of Belmont Village. “They may have left the stove on in the apartment, it may be they cannot drive anymore, it may simply be it’s not safe to get in and out of the shower without somebody assisting them,” she says. “But life isn’t over because of that crisis. I’d like to think this episode our seniors have between 80 and 105, which is our typical age range, is an opportunity!
Will founded Belmont Village after researching care for her mother-in-law, then in the early stages of dementia. “I toured places and I didn’t like much what I saw,” she recalls. “I realized, you can make a great building, how do you bring it alive?” Will opened the first Belmont facility in 1998. Twelve years later, the company has grown to 20 facilities around the country, with eleven of them in California. Her new property in Cardiff by-the-Sea is light and bright, with a bustling dining room named Josephina’s Kitchen after her late mother-in-law. The village offers a range of care, along with tasteful décor, a library, swimming pool, transportation, and perhaps most important, socialization with other seniors, which Will says decreases depression and promotes cognitive thought.
“However many caregivers you have at home, they are not your parents’ peers,” says Will. “And we all need, want, and enjoy peers. We have friendships that develop, we have romances that develop in our communities. We have the need, as seniors, for one another. We can’t solve that for our parents with caregivers.”
Yet, seniors often are understandably loath to leave their homes, and the lives they have known. “People are resistant because they remember when their parents were going through this phase of their lives,” says Michael O’Connor, marketing director at La Costa Glen retirement community in Carlsbad. It was die at home or die in a nursing home. And they didn’t want to die in a nursing home. We have to convince them that this is the best place to live.”
Adds Will: “We’re a whole new category, this idea that you can administer care needs, but also thrive on great hospitality, good fun, engagement, and so forth. This is a relatively new concept our seniors did not grow up thinking about.”
That’s what actor Barry Williams of the The Brady Bunch and his brother discovered when they began exploring the world of retirement living for their mother, Dori. They soon learned: “Oh boy, it’s not what grandma’s retirement was like.” Dori left her longtime Los Angeles home to relocate to La Costa Glen, with its beautiful apartments, terraces overlooking waterfalls, and lush landscaping. It also boasts well-appointed clubhouses with libraries, activity rooms, movie theatres, restaurants offering four-course meals, and endless activities from exercise classes to concerts.
“There are more things to do than on a college campus,” says O’Connor. “Those who are bold enough to move in, once they get settled in, embrace it. They always say, ‘I wish I had moved in earlier. There is so much happening here.’”
“It’s exponential the amount of stimulation she has here,” says Williams. “There’s a reason to get up, there’s a reason to do things, and there’s a purpose involved that was simply lacking. I think people die when they don’t have that.”
For Dori, a difficult decision proved for her, to be the right one. “I love it,” she says. “Everyone that I know here loves it. They feel very grateful for the trade-offs they’ve made. It’s very pleasant and comfortable and enjoyable, and the people are just as friendly as can be.”
Experts say Williams handled it the right way — he and his brother did the homework, but in the end, his mother made the decision. “I think there’s a very fine line between encouraging and pulling the trigger, a very fine line,” he says. “Like with anything, if someone is doing something of their own volition, there’s no resentment.”
So when answering that age old question, families and experts agree it’s crucial to get the “buy in” of the senior. “It’s a process. It’s not like picking a car out of a lot,” says Will. “One way is to suggest a temporary arrangement so you’re not pulling up roots before the new ones set. But it can’t be a conspiracy. It really has to be something where the senior themselves takes ownership for the choice. They may not be happy about it. But they really have to have a strong voice in the process. That’s exactly what you would insist on. Our parents are no different.” ANDREA NAVERSEN