Our mom was 89 years old, living alone, forgetful and driving to restaurants for dinner at twilight. Like many older drivers she forgot the rules. She drove her car into a fire hydrant. She ran a light and got a ticket. She blamed everyone but herself and refused to stop driving. My sister and I tried to get her help at home, but she rejected everyone. “I want my privacy,” she said. It was very scary. She was losing her memory slowly and we saw the change in her.
The intense 2005 hurricane season brought it to a head. I flew down twice to sit out hurricanes with her, and my sister flew in for a couple of others. Then Hurricane Wilma swept across the Everglades with winds of over 110 miles an hour. Neither my sister nor I was there. Lights went out. Five died in Florida and wind and rain caused $16.8 billion worth of damage, according to the National Weather Service. Neighbors called to say our mom was in front of her apartment screaming for help. My sister and I flew down as soon as the airport reopened and brought her to New York to my home.
Elder care experts say this fits the pattern. Larissa Kostal, a geriatrics expert with Atria Senior Living, says, “It’s usually a small crisis that occurs that makes the family members all of a sudden say, Wow. Maybe mommy can’t do this, or dad can’t do this anymore.”
Our mother forgot things and wrote notes to herself. Then forgot the notes. She forgot to make her mortgage payments. Her apartment was cluttered and needed cleaning. It turns out many adult children see the same kind of thing. Psychologist Matthew Lippman says, “If the caregivers are fortunate their loved ones come to the realization,’ Gee I really cannot manage on my own at home’.”
Our mother never said that. When we brought up getting help in the home or moving to assisted living she always said, “I’m fine. Don’t interfere. I’ve lived a long life and I know what I need.” She was also frugal and raised questions about the cost. Assisted living facilities are expensive. Prices range from $2500 to as much as $10,000 a month depending upon where in the U.S. you live.
I began to research living options in our area before our mom moved back to New York. I found an Assisted Living facility that was just about to open in a suburban community not far from where my mom grew up. Everything about it looked right. It had the kind of curb appeal that she liked and the apartments were spacious and the furniture in the common areas was lovely.
My mom and I had visited assisted living facilities before this, and she always resisted. It was the same on this trip. But there was a difference. She said repeatedly, “I’m homeless. I don’t have a choice.” We invited her her childhood friend who lived nearby to take a look to make sure that I wasn’t putting her in “a home.” The friend approved and encouraged my mother.
Larissa Kostal says that Tip One for choosing Assisted Living is to narrow the choices and then offer options. “Let your family member be part of the process. I feel it’s a generation that worked really hard and earned their money. And if it is going to be spent, let them be able to spend it where they want it to be spent.”
Still mom was resistant and I didn’t know how to handle it. I called a lot of people for advice. A doctor who treated geriatric patients suggested that I propose she give it a six month trial and that seemed to make her more comfortable. Psychologist Matthew Lippman says that’s the right thing to do. “The suggestion would be to tell your loved one, we’re going to try this out for about 6 months. See how you get used to the place, get acclimated to the environment. Get used to the place and then we’ll talk after 6 months and see what happens then.”
We furnished the apartment with family things before she moved in. We also hung pictures and diplomas that reminded her she’s important. That eased things a bit. And Larrisa Kostal says she encourages family members to make the apartments homey. “Sometimes, it’s just as simple as finding out if there is a favorite picture from the house.”
Our mom lived there for six years until she died at 95 in 2012. She seemed happy. She participated in activities and we even discovered she sang with the chorus and we knew she was safe. I visited every week and we’d go shopping and to lunch. When I asked about her day and the activities, she’d say, “You know. It’s the same. I’m in the system.”