Making the move: Parents and senior residences

Today my 79-year-old mom moved to a local Sassy Senior Residence.

That’s not really the name of it, of course, but that’s how I prefer to think of it: not in the nursing home realm — “Would you like some Jell-O, Mrs. K?” — but a place that nonetheless lifts some of the responsibilities off the residents who aren’t in shape to handle them on their own.

My mom and I had more than one volley about living by herself. She had been understandably hesitant to move out of she calls “the nicest house I’ve ever lived in,” so for a long time she refused to entertain the notion of moving, even as her world shrank to just four rooms — bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room — and she became dependent upon other people (sometimes our next-door neighbors, but usually my sister) to take care of many everyday tasks.

“Are you afraid that moving into a place like that would signal the beginning of the end?” I asked her point-blank one day. She said no, but meanwhile we kept disagreeing about how she could consider herself living independently in the house when she had come to rely upon her neighbors to deliver her mail from the sidewalk mailbox to the doorside one.

“Mr. B has done it ever since I fell down that one time,” she said.

“OK, (a) just because you fall down once doesn’t mean you stop doing things. It means you start being more cautious when you do them,” I said. (And yes, I really did say (a) out loud.) “I fell down while stepping off a curb once and my foot hurt for a month, but I didn’t stop stepping off curbs. And (b), it’s not fair of you to depend upon the kindness of strangers. What happens if Mr. B goes on vacation for a week?”

“Well then my next-door neighbor will get it,” she said.

“The one who you just told me is gone a lot because he’s visiting his wife, who mysteriously moved one city over?” I replied.

I’m not trying to belittle the beastliness of having to finally confront the encroaching infirmities that bedevil you; however, when you’ve begun to define your life according to those selfsame infirmities, inevitably that moment has to come. But, not being God, I’m not in a position to decide when it does.

So instead, I stuck to what I’m good at: debate, and playing devil’s advocate.

  • How fair is it to turn a neighbor’s friendly gesture into a daily requirement?
  • After you decide that you are longer game to maneuver around grocery store aisles, preferring to hand that responsibility off to your daughter, how can you expect her to feel comfortable with you living alone in a split-level home that requires you to maneuver a set of stairs to get from pretty much any A to any B?
  • Might the fact that you stay in bed each morning until noon, essentially resetting your internal alarm clock three or four hours later than most people, have something to do with how you’re unable to fall asleep by 10 p.m. and often are awake until 1 a.m. or later.?

Each time we debated, I’d leave her with this: “You’re almost 80, and you can do whatever you like. But your actions have consequences that you can’t always control to your liking. You can’t insist that other people must perform tasks when you want, how you want — unless you’re paying them.”

Plus, I kept pointing out the bonuses. The shuttle buses. The weekly housekeeping and linen services. (“We pay someone $100 every two weeks to do that,” I said, “and out of the three of us I’m the only one brave enough to assume that includes changing the bedsheets.”) High-speed Internet service (although Web browsing might be awhile off).

Eventually, thanks to the greater efforts of my sister and brother, our mom agreed to check out a place where some of my dad’s friends had moved. Once that ball got rolling, there was no stopping the momentum … even if our mom may have dragged her heels as much as she could.

“I just realized that I’m not going into the unit I wanted,” she told me last night. “I wonder why I didn’t get that one.”

“Maybe someone was murdered in it,” I said in my best Jessica Fletcher voice, “and they still have to scrub it clean.” She didn’t appreciate that much, or my follow-up suggestion that the people in charge at Sassy Senior Residences placed her right across from a resident who just happened to be a single bachelor looking for a love connection.

So then I did what kids do best sometimes: used a mother’s words against her. “When we moved and I started a new school as a freshman, you said something very wise: ‘People aren’t going to come up and be your friend just because you’re new. It’s going to be up to you to make the effort.’*

“Now it’s your turn,” I said. “You’ll be living in a place with hundreds of other people who are in the same boat you are. This isn’t the end of your life story. Try to think of it as the beginning of the next chapter of it.”

Again, it’s up to her to make of it what she pleases. But tonight, us four kids are all delighted that at least she’s giving it a chance.

* Although true, I went about this in my own inimitable Sammitt way: spending most of my freshman year deciding which of my new classmates would be worth being friends with, then befriending them in only-ever-slightly increasing degrees at my own glacial pace, through senior year. (Funny Michael spent so much of his time at my 20-year high school reunion frustrated that the standard answer to his question “who did Sam hang around with?” was “you know, I really have no idea” that the next day when a well-meaning classmate came up and told Michael that he was “so brave” for showing up with me, his automatic response was: “Why, was he not popular in high school?”

WHAT SAM WORE: 5-14-12
The shirt: Long-sleeved linen button-down, from Uniqlo, New York.
The pants: “Perfect fit” cargo pants, from a previous trip to Uniqlo.
The shoes: “Tumble” loafers by J. Shoes, ordered from a now-defunct website.

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