Until last month, the phone number was in my family for almost half a century. But call the number today and you'll hear a terse message that it has been disconnected. It took 15 years for 523-0765 to become a non-working number. The drawn-out campaign that my sister, brother and I waged to have my parents sell their two-story colonial -- the house on the lovely corner lot -- began when my late father's Parkinson's disease no longer allowed him to climb the stairs. We pleaded with my mother, who was healthy then and quite a bit younger than her ailing husband, to move into an apartment -- one floor, no stairs.
The idea of giving up the ancestral home in Connecticut was anathema to my mother, who had already forever left her first home in Cuba. Like houses that had been in one family for decades, my parents' place burst at the seams with memories that were good and bad and ugly and beautiful. There were fights and reconciliations and moments of pure love. There were the deaths of parents and grandparents. There were great hi-fi blasting parties where my parents danced rumbas and drank Cuba Libres. There was my wedding gown that I hung on the living room lintel the night before my nuptials. There were grandchildren who toddled around the house.
But the house also teemed from years of hoarding that my mother mistook for protecting memories. I didn't understand that even a few years ago. I only knew that she hung on to tests that she administered as a high school Spanish teacher in the '70s and '80s, and she saved every single greeting card anyone ever sent to her. She saved her children's baby clothes --clothes practically disintegrated from age. There was my prom gown, the dress I graduated high school in. My mother's wardrobe grew exponentially, particularly after my father died, She ordered clothes from the Home Shopping Network and catalogues I never heard of. She had more clothes than she could possibly wear in this lifetime and piles of them encroached on every bit of available space in closets and atop empty beds. .
Maybe that is a sign of age -- an unkempt house filled with stuff. Or maybe it was a bulwark against leaving. When my father died 10 years ago, the house was still habitable and my mother swore she wasn't budging. The heater broke down and had to be replaced. The sump pump wasn't up to the task of keeping the basement dry. Weeds shot through cracks in the driveway. The shrubs were overgrown. The window air conditioners -- streaked with bird droppings --wheezed asthmatically. The wall opposite the banister was forever scarred after my father's chair lift was removed. The house was, in a way, diseased. And that disease was progressive. My mother could not take care of the house and the house could no longer shelter her safely.
She argued this was the home she had made with her husband, and for better or worse, she was staying until death did part her from it. We must have looked like the most negligent children in the world as the neighbors watched her haul her pails out every Sunday night, or noticed that her sidewalk was not shoveled after a big snowstorm. She lied to us and said her lawn man did snow removal. She lied to us that she had a lawn man. She lied to prevent her own removal from the house.
My mother's health deteriorated. At first her gait was halting. Bad knees is what she told us. She refused to use a cane and we lived in fear that she would fall and break a hip, or worse, hit her head. Still, she refused to move, to live near my sister and me in Boston. Hartford was her home. She knew the television stations and the best place to get tuna salad. She was not budging and by the end of her run in the house she was not walking. Once again a chair lift was installed. My siblings and I were bewildered. This was déjà vu all over again.
And then one day my mother couldn't manage her house anymore, couldn't care for herself. She called me panicked that she was feeling very unwell. What should she do? I called an ambulance. She'll tell anyone who will listen that that hospital stay was the beginning of the end for her. I will tell anyone who will listen that the phone call I made for the ambulance saved her life.
Here's what my siblings and I had to do to save my mother further. During her extended stay in the hospital and rehab center, we used the power of attorney that we had wrested from her the year before. We sold the house with her grudging acceptance. She knew it was time. We promised to salvage pictures and other mementos. She decided to go to an assisted living facility in Connecticut because leaving the area would cause unbearable changes like watching a different local news anchor.
She was disappointed when she couldn't take 523-0765 with her to the next town. I was devastated. It turns out the house move was as hard on me as it was on my mother. I left the old rotary phone when we cleaned the house out. After all these years, she was still renting it from the telephone company.
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 <em>new</em> buyers might be on the young side, you want to be sure you know the average age of <em>all</em> 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 <a href="http://www.seniorartistscolony.com/" target="_hplink">Burbank Senior Artists Colony</a>, a rental community with opportunities to engage in visual arts, theater and writing. Or a place based around a specific occupation, like <a href="http://www.nalc.org/nalc/members/nalcrest.html" target="_hplink">Nalcrest, a community about 70 miles east of Tampa, Florida </a>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. <a href="http://www.findingloveafter50.com/index.html" target="_hplink">Experts suggest that if marriage is your goal</a>, 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. <a href="http://www.frontporch.net/our-communities" target="_hplink">Front Porch</a>, 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. <a href="http://www.frontporch.net/" target="_hplink">Front Porch</a> 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.
Follow Judy Bolton-Fasman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@jbolfas