Two random things happened last week, which in hindsight, were perhaps not so random and may in fact have been a blueprint for the future. First I ran head first into a problem. And then, I met its solution.
My husband and I are contemplating downsizing to a smaller home and have identified a particular neighborhood that we think we might like to live in while our kids finish school. It's a mobile home park in Malibu with an eclectic mix of celebrities and rich people who use these beachfront coaches as second homes; families like mine; and of course, retirees.
Two of the homes for sale that we toured were occupied by women in their 90s, for whom, I suspect someone other than them decided that they should no longer be living alone.
In the first home, the woman was an artist. Her paintings covered every inch of wall space and wherever there was room, canvases were stacked on the floor leaning up against the walls. She sat at her kitchen table surrounded by her oil paints, mesmerized by her work as we walked through her home. For us, her home would have been a tear-down, one where we hired a company to come in and bulldoze it and cart it away in dumpsters so that a week later we would have a brand new pre-assembled coach with lots of high-end features put in its place.The whole process of erasing this woman and her 30-year life in her home could be accomplished in a blink of an eye.
Her only request was that whoever bought her home please keep feeding the cat that comes around. He is a nice kitty who belongs to no one, she said, and he keeps away the mice. I think she added the last to justify the expense of buying him cat food. She said little else, which was good, because the sadness I felt about the woman's situation was overpowering and it was all I could do to get out of there before I started to cry.
After her house, we saw another one, where the 94-year-old widowed owner sat in the living room staring at the TV on high volume while we went room-to-room. The woman's walker stood off to the side and my daughter couldn't budge beyond the decades-old family photos on a table. "Is that her?" my daughter asked me in a whisper, pointing to a framed picture of a mom wearing a swimsuit popular in the 1950s and playing at the beach with kids. "Shhhh," I hushed my daughter, forgetting that the woman in front of the blasting TV likely couldn't hear her anyway.
The listing agent explained that the owner was going to move to be nearer her children. The voice in my head translated "nearer her children" to mean "some kind of assisted living place." Again, sadness overwhelmed my ability to see the real estate beyond the woman's life.
Is this what it comes down to in the end? When the care we need means we dismantle our homes and lives and move to be closer to our caregiver? The answer is yes, of course it does. Our final chapters are written by those who assume the responsibility of our care. And in order for them to do that, their convenience often trumps our preference. Still, it left me sad. Independence is our only real freedom and when we can no longer live independently, we fall to the will of those who provide for our needs -- which is why the one hope we all have is to stay living independently for as long as we can.
No, I didn't sleep much that night, thinking of those two women. But an answer presented itself the next day.
I was having dinner at a friend's house and met her former college roommate who has been staying with her -- a middle-age woman who hopes to relocate back to southern California after decades spent in Oklahoma and who shared that she is looking for a job. I asked her what sort of work she did.
"I am an overnight caregiver," she said, and the alarm bells in my head went off. She isn't a licensed nurse and can't prescribe or dispense medications, but what she can do is babysit the elderly. She can be the eyes and ears for their adult children who worry about them and who live a distance away. She is a smart grownup who has learned how to help someone safely out of a chair or bed and into the bathroom. She has learned the safe way to help her charge bathe and dress. She reads to them when they can't fall asleep; she listens patiently to their stories, even when they repeat themselves; she plays Bingo and Scrabble and will watch their favorite TV shows with them.
You can slap a slick name on what she does -- how does "compassionate caregiver" sound? -- but at the root of it, she is an overnight babysitter for the elderly. And that is precisely what many need in order to stay in their homes.
But for reasons that I couldn't fathom, she is still looking for work while just up the road a 90-something artist and a 94-year-old TV watcher will soon leave their long-time homes and end their independence because someone else decided it was best for them.
Some retirement communities have lowered the age-admission bar to 50. But therein lies the rub: Just because they let 50-year-olds in, doesn't mean everyone who lives there is 50. Do you really want to be the only 50 year old in a community where most people are in their 80s? A retirement community can be a little evasive when you ask about the age of residents, in part because it's constantly changing. The average age of residents tends to rise as the community matures, so while the average age of new buyers might be on the young side, you want to be sure you know the average age of all the residents who live there. It's an important distinction. One surefire way to evaluate who your neighbors will be is to check out who the recreational programs cater to. Is it heavy with clubs for marathoners, tennis players and Pilates classes? Or is loaded with offerings like knitting, Mahjong and bridge?
People come to a retirement community expecting to find a built-in circle of friends with similar interests. It's flawed thinking. Just because two people are the same age doesn't mean they like the same things. The solution is to find people "with the same major" -- people interested in the same things as you are. This thinking has fueled what is known as affinity retirement communities -- places developed around a specific interest. There are some retirement communities for artists -- like California's Burbank Senior Artists Colony, a rental community with opportunities to engage in visual arts, theater and writing. Or a place based around a specific occupation, like Nalcrest, a community about 70 miles east of Tampa, Florida for retired mail carriers where, no surprise here, no dogs are allowed.
For many, retirement community living starts to look more appealing when they find themselves spouse-less. Whether it be through death or divorce, the prospect of flying solo after decades of having a partner is often what drives people to consider living in an age-restricted community. But the odds of winning the remarriage jackpot are probably better in Vegas than in a retirement village. Experts suggest that if marriage is your goal, you should stay active, pursue your own interests and look beyond the retirement gates for a date.
Studies have shown that active people are happier and healthier. With this in mind, you will want to pick a retirement community that keeps you engaged. One thing to consider is a community in or near a college. Colleges and universities frequently let seniors audit classes for free. College campuses also have many free and low-cost cultural offerings -- concerts, art shows, visiting authors. Retirement communities tend to be built out in deserts or on the outskirts of town where land is cheaper. It may be worth paying a premium for locations closer to the things that will keep you happiest -- and that includes being near old friends and family.
While some retirement communities have swing sets and little playgrounds for visiting grandkids, others cap the number of days that minors can spend the night. The idea is that they don't want under-aged residents moving in on a permanent basis. This kind of policy may feel draconian to those who cherish every hour with their grandkids and want the little ones over as much as possible. It also might preclude your adult kids from returning to the nest if they can't find jobs. It's best to check the community's policy about visitors who are younger than the minimum age requirement and make sure you are in agreement before you commit to living there.
Retirement is all about living on a fixed income, right? You know what's coming in each month and it's important to know what's going out. Make sure you know what's included in your monthly homeowners association dues. While "use of the clubhouse" may be included, morning yoga classes may be extra. Front Porch, one of California's largest not-for-profit providers of senior living communities, lists this as one of the top questions to ask. The devil is in the details, after all.
While your immediate concern may be whether you will be able to maintain an active lifestyle, some thought needs to be given to whether this is a home in which you can age in place. Front Porch suggests prospective residents asK: Will I be able to get around to appointments and run your errands if I can no longer drive? What kind of emergency response systems do you have? While it's hard to envision looking that far down the road, it gets back to the not-trusting-anyone-older-than-30 idea: The day will come sooner than you expect when you might appreciate a community bus to the supermarket or a dining room in which to take your meals.
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