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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Living in assisted living...

When I first visited my father's assisted living facility, some guy shuffled up to me and asked, "Am I going to dinner or lunch?" I managed to reply as if it were the most normal question in the world, but felt like I had landed in the Twilight Zone. Over the past year, I've grown accustomed to hearing just about anything that anyone says. For example, over dinner this guy I really like, Harry, whispers to me in a conspiratorial tone, "How old is your father?" I tell him, for the umpteenth billion time, that he is 97-years-old. And as if this is the first time he's heard this news, he responds with shock, telling me that my father looks so young! Harry tells me he's 90 and then turns to his girlfriend, Millie, who is only 80, and says, "Isn't that right?" She replies patiently, "Yes."

Lately, I've been spending a lot of weekends with my father, as his health is rapidly declining. Despite the fact that he's officially in home hospice, he is enjoying lunch and dinner visits with friends, and he goes to exercise class every day at the facility. On Sunday, he was too tired to go and as he was contemplating what to do, admitted that he felt guilty for not going. He's not even Catholic!

I started looking forward to joining him at his morning weight exercise class, where a young and very perky teacher gets things rolling with balloon volleyball, a "game" I associate with young children. It's pretty straightforward. She stands in the middle of the circle of residents who are all seated in their chairs or wheelchairs, and she flips the ball around the room, making sure everyone has a turn. Some are very cautious with the balloon; others give it a big whack and laugh out loud. 

I'm amazed at how long folks enjoy playing this game. Even though the class is called weight exercise, this weightless balloon game constitutes about three quarters of the class. I get into it, mixing up my "moves" with actual hard punches and an occasional soccer head hit, which is entertaining for this crowd. Later in the dining hall, I see some of my volleyball team and we have a special connection. 

For a moment, I imagine what it would be like if I actually lived here. And then I realize that by the time I had to live there, I probably would have some fairly significant things missing, like my ability to move freely and maybe even my mind. 

Of course, all of this fun and games is punctuated by an undercurrent of failing health, as residents notice who is not showing up at bingo or as someone is rushed out of the building on a stretcher. Harry often asks me how my father is doing, calling him "Mack" even though that's not his name. His girlfriend reminds him, with a touch of annoyance sprinkled with humor. He says to me hopefully, "Mack looks really good, just the same as when he first moved in, doesn't he?" The fact is that "Mack" isn't doing too well at all, but I don't have the heart to tell Harry.

I feel grateful that we found a place where the staff are kind and mostly competent, and the residents aren't all out-of-it. My father first moved in after a serious fall and it was evident that he could no longer live independently. He was willing to move, but angry just the same, and at times, said he had to get out of there. He felt alienated. These weren't "his" people. He assumed they weren't into what he was into, like theater, literature and politics. He certainly wasn't a bingo kind of guy, either, which is one of the big pastimes in that place. But over the year, he has succumbed to "gambling", as he calls it, and takes pleasure in being in the company of others. Happy hours - which include cocktails like Margaritas served in little paper cups- seem to tickle his fancy.

It's harder for him to follow conversations, and there's no point in bringing him to the theater now, because he is now legally blind, and anyway, he'd have trouble following the action and would end up sleeping through the whole thing. Not to mention that getting there and back would be very hard.

How do we want to live the "end-stage" of our lives? The research says that a critical factor that keeps people going - no surprise - is engagement in meaningful activities. Another important thing that keeps us alive is giving to others. The bottom line is that we all need to feel that our lives have meaning, that were contributing to society, more broadly, or to our friends and loved ones at a personal level. We all want a life well-lived.

But how do we maintain engagement? Perhaps we need to ask:  What are we doing now in our lives that will sustain our sense of engagement? What kind of networks will we still have if and when we live long? How do we maintain a network of younger friends? Because chances are, all or most of our contemporaries will be gone if we live very long. And what about housing? My father lived on his own until he was in his mid-90s, resisting our efforts to consider safer options. We could never imagine him in an institutional setting, but we're lucky that he can afford a decent assisted living facility and extra care, as needed. But what about the thousands of elders who don't have the resources to live this end-stage of their lives surrounded, as he is, with dignity and love?

I leave my weekends with my father feeling exhausted but glad I was there with him. And I can't help but wonder whether I'll live to his age or older, and if I do, what kind of options will be available for the old woman I become.

24 comments:

  1. A very thoughtful picture you've painted of our parents' present and our own possible future. You pose good questions!

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  2. Great to read about your dad and to read about your musings about our inexorable future. Thank you.

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  3. Just discovered a great blog on aging issues by sociologist, Meika Loe!

    http://aging4dummies.wordpress.com/

    Check it out!!!

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  4. Mindy:

    I enjoyed your post, particularly since I have been thinking a lot about the same issues recently. My dad never made it to assisted living or 97-- he died a few weeks ago living with great difficulty (particularly for my mom) at home and would have been 97 on Dec.1. I had already mourned the man I knew before, but am well aware that I am so fortunate to have had him for so long. Enjoy your dad's presence in the world.
    Jean Elson

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  5. Thanks so much, Jeany. I totally relate to your comment about mourning the man you knew - but feeling fortunate to have had your father for so long. A very useful and real perspective. Must be hard for your mom - and for you in your "work" to support her now. Hang in there.
    Mindy

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  6. I finally got to read your blog and enjoyed hearing your very articulate description of the thoughts and feelings we often share about our dad. If we are lucky, our children are watching us!! With love, Lor

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  7. Thanks for this, Mindy! Sometimes, I can't help but think of me getting older, soon. I wonder how will I look 40 years after, and will I go to a senior living community? Seriously, I'm clueless, but I'm ready when this day comes.

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  8. Thanks for your comment, Cara! I see that you write a lot about these issues yourself. Very cool... Hard to project our futures, but we can certainly make choices now that affect them! ;-)
    Mindy

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  10. Yes, your point is good "what will sustain our sense of engagement?."

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  11. Great post with an inspirational example. Nice to go through it. Many thanks for sharing with us.

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  14. Keeping themselves occupied is a must for seniors. Restarting hobbies which you could not take up in your younger days due to lack of time is a good option. Moving to a Senior Living Community is good because mingling with like minded people and engagement in social activities like music, games and physical exercise is a good way for seniors to live a happy and relaxed life and also their overall well being.

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  20. Hi Palmella - Many thanks for your note! I'm glad that this piece was helpful. As you can see, I wrote it 7 years ago, but the issues remain relevant - maybe even more relevant - as time passes. I hope that you were able to find a high quality assisted living residence in Denver. You may want to check out the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. I have also written a book about my experience as a caregiver, which includes many of the resources that were useful to me. It's called Caring for Red: A Daughter's Memoir (Vanderbilt University Press). It came out last year, and I have been speaking at universities and bookstores all over the country (but not in Denver yet!). I have found - through this experience - that there are SO many caregivers out there, doing the hard work of caring for a parent (or spouse). And while the experience is so universal, in many ways, we are so isolated. We need to talk with one another - to break down this isolation. Good luck to you! If you're interested in the book, check out my website where you'll find a link: www.mindyfried.com - along with testimonials from people who read it. Take care! Mindy

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  21. Sure, I'll see National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP as well as your book. It might be useful for me and other people like me who are having hard time in finding the right assisted living facility for their seniors.

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