My mother is almost 80 and battles severe rheumatoid arthritis, which limits her mobility. She also has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, is hard of hearing and has kidney problems. For the last several years, my sister and I have been increasingly worried about her living in the old house in Lakewood, Ohio: a small Colonial, where she had lived for 24 years. Stairs are a necessary part of life in that house: the only bathroom is upstairs; the laundry is in the basement.
A few years ago, it became clear that she needed to move. Her ability to live independently had diminished; even cooking became too much. She existed largely on delivery, takeout and fast food. She relied heavily on a team of helpers: me, my partner, a young woman neighbor and an elderly handyman friend. She talked increasingly of being unable to take care of the house, regularly asked for help and complained frequently about fatigue and pain.
I brought up moving a few years ago. Mom was resistant and insulted. This was the first house she had ever owned. She scrimped and saved for years to buy that house, was a proud homeowner and loved her independent life. She was overwhelmed by the thought of trying to find another home. She insisted she couldn’t afford it and said she needed more time.
However, her older sister — my aunt — who also lives alone, has had several medical emergencies over the past couple years — falls and bad injuries that caused her to be unable to get up and left her alone, for hours, in pain. It spooked my mom.
She told me she was worried about being in the house alone and signed up for a personal alert system that includes wearing a panic button around your neck that you can press anytime to call for emergency assistance. Early into 2022, she asked me if my partner and I would help move her bed into the living room! “Nobody sits on that couch, anyway,” she said, as we literally sat on the couch. I knew things were bad for her if she was trying to somehow turn her three-story house into one-floor living.
Knowing my aunt’s situation might be a button I could push to spur mom to agree to move, I told my sister I was going to try again. She wasn’t optimistic.
Since she shot down the idea so hard when I brought it up previously, I had to conduct this search behind mom’s back. I wasn’t sure what she could afford, and these facilities are expensive. I didn’t know much income she had from social security and her small pension from the university where she worked for 30 years. I didn’t know how much she had in savings, nor what I could get for her house.
I have had the ability to make legal decisions for my mom for several years now, and if I had to force her into a facility where she would be safe, I would do it. Several years ago, she experienced an alarming period of sudden dementia caused by incompatible medications at the wrong doses, and I had to take over her affairs at that time while I got her into a hospital to find out what was wrong. Fortunately once the meds were cleared from her system, she was back to normal.
Since then, we have discussed her end of life plans and that includes whether or not you want life-sustaining measures if you are in a vegetative state. (Everyone should have someone else who can make these types of decisions for you, no matter your age, or the doctors and the state will make them for you. Power of Attorney, Power of Attorney for Healthcare, and/or a living will should be done at the same time you create a will for after your death.)
I put out feelers. I called a friend who is a top local realtor, and he estimated the selling price. I used a senior residential search service to help me set up appointments at several senior living facilities. The costs were astronomical, but without a mortgage, utilities, cable, taxes, etc., perhaps it could work. I crunched numbers and created a spreadsheet with estimates.
Finding the right place took research and work, culminating in a whirlwind of tours scheduled for me over a one-week period.
Assisted living facilities offered too much assistance. For example, you don’t have a full kitchen and can’t cook any food in your suite unless it’s in a hot pot or microwave. They also bathe you twice a week, which mom would abhor. At one facility, when I arrived, multiple staff members were having trouble waking a man who had fallen deeply asleep in a chair right in front of the front door. Few people were able to walk on their own. These gentle seniors were obviously in need of much more care than my mom needs now.
The final facility I was scheduled to visit was a senior apartment complex in a beautifully manicured campus across the street from a quaint beach on the Lake Erie coastline. It felt homey upon arrival. The spacious dining room was paneled in dark wood and looked as elegant as any luxury hotel. The activities schedule and facility were impressive, with regular musical guests, weekly trips to the grocery store and outings to upscale restaurants and the orchestra. The complex includes a gym, a cozy bar, a hair salon, movie theater, game room, a cooking demo/art studio, a library and more.
The apartment unit was spacious and inviting, including a balcony with a view. With nearly everything included — heat and air conditioning, cable TV, two meals a day, weekly linens and housekeeping — I felt she would enjoy living there. Save for the senior services — daily wellness checks, medication administration and monthly podiatry visits — it felt like an upscale apartment complex with a plethora of activities, organized for you or for you to pursue on your own.
I told mom I wanted to come over and steeled myself for the presentation. I had colorful brochures and pictures, spreadsheets and notebooks. What happened came as a shock. I showed her everything, told her how worried we were, and she asked how soon we could tour the facility. I made a call and we went out that afternoon. She absolutely loved it and wanted the wheels to start turning immediately. She was ready. It was time. It all happened so fast. From that visit to her move-in was about a month and a half. It was a whirlwind for me to handle, including a lot of cleaning at her house. The house sale closed two weeks after her move.
Mom has boasted her whole life that she’s “not a joiner.” She had a very limited selection of friends and they have passed away in the last few years, so she has been increasingly alone. I can’t visit as often as she wants. Life gets in the way and though she is a top priority, I have a full-time job and a family to care for. I was hopeful she might make a few friends at the complex.
Boy, was that an underestimation! She never got to experience dorm life as she didn’t go to college, but she’s making up for it now. Her life is centered on the bustle, schedule and gossip of the complex. There are characters like “The Colonel” (a former military guy), a woman who is an heir to an Irish butter fortune, a friend from her old Silver Sneakers class, a chef they call Nacho and daily drama and intrigue. She saw a jazz band play last week, rides the bus to the grocery, and went to an upscale lunch on a group outing. She’s become much more outgoing, asking strangers if she can sit with them at meals and inviting others to sit with her. She’s found a friend to walk with in the gardens and is using the facility’s gym.
My mom has been more active, more dynamic and more upbeat in the past three months than she has in the past five years. She even took a spontaneous road trip this week to a city she visited with a former boyfriend 30 years ago as she wanted to see it again on her own terms and in her own time.
The relief has been astronomical for both of us. My mom is almost like a completely different person. She is upbeat and positive every time we talk and can’t stop talking about how great her life is. She told me recently how she feels protected and cared for at the facility down with great detail. She noticed recently that there are even cameras in the trees along the walkway paths around the complex so that if someone got lost or fell, they would be able to locate them. It would be impossible for me to express the mental and physical relief this is for me, not to worry about her every minute of every day, to know she is not only taken care of, but truly and genuinely loves her life like she never has before.
The social burden has eased on me as well. I love my mother dearly and visit when I can, but I have a full-time job and a part-time job, a large, old house and huge property to take care of, a life partner and a teenager. My hands are not just full — they’re overflowing. Knowing that she is not sitting over there lonely and depressed, waiting for someone to call but instead is joining with others to socialize at meals twice a day, has stories to tell about people she meets and things that happen at the complex, a huge burden has been lifted.
She’s been very clear that the changes in her are due to the removal of the burden of homeownership. She doesn’t have to fix many meals or do dishes, she no longer has to change sheets with arthritic hands, has fewer bills to pay, doesn’t have to deal with trash cans, yard work, repairs or maintenance. There’s no property tax, no neighbors looking in her window, and no kids drag racing up and down the street at night. She has been so grateful for all my help and assistance, and can’t believe she gets to live in this nice place where so many things are taken care of for her.
The money won’t last forever. Her modest house fetched a modest price, even in this economy, but she should be able to live there without worry for several years. If push comes to shove and there’s no money left, I’ll help her stay there if I can. And if I can’t, I’ll figure something else out. That’s what I do — I get things done.