Don't Let Guilt Rule Out the Retirement Home

Kathleen Vallee Stein is a writer in Monrovia. Website:

My mother and I arrived at the outpatient surgery center that day promptly at 8 a.m. She had taken me to the doctor when I needed to go, now it was my turn. They called her name and she walked into the surgery suite as I wished her well and promised to guard her purse.

When I think of that day, and all the days that my mother required care, I know I did the best I could to meet her needs as well as the needs of my own family. Now that she is gone, I sympathize with my friends who struggle with decisions about how to care for their aging and frail parents.

That day in the waiting room, I met a woman whose mother-in-law was there for cataract surgery. The similarity of our situations bonded us. We were caregivers for our aging parents, members of a rapidly growing sorority.

Her mother-in-law had moved in four months earlier. It seemed like a lifetime. Mama had little short-term memory, broke most of the heirloom china, turned on the oven to heat food she was supposed to warm up in the much safer microwave.

The woman no longer chatted with girlfriends at lunchtime; she had to run home to take care of Mama. She was getting nervous tics and fighting with her husband. Mama came to them because her daughter, her only other child, was worn out and had to go on antidepressants.

I told her about my mother's retirement community, where my mom had her own apartment. It had pull cords in the bedroom and bathroom; one yank brought help right away. She usually fixed her own breakfast and lunch but ate dinner in the dining room with the other residents. The van went to the grocery and drugstore on Wednesdays.

The apartment was rented on a month-to-month basis. Although the rent seemed high at first, it covered everything: utilities, cable, security, transportation, weekly cleaning, meals in the dining room, activities and, best of all, peace of mind for both of us.

Although my parents were not particularly wealthy, they were careful with their money during their 55-year marriage. The sale of the house that they owned outright provided enough income for my mother to live in the retirement community for several years.

In most cases, when Grandma goes to live with her family, she is in her 80s or 90s. She may have replacement hips or knees and survived cancer or a heart attack. It's highly likely she has short-term memory loss that makes her a danger to herself and others.

Modern medicine has yielded many blessings, and living longer is a big one. That longer life comes with a passel of medical bills, Medicare paperwork and prescriptions that must be refilled, not forgotten. Most elderly people have several physicians, and that means many appointments. Transportation has to be provided.

The image of Grandma at home with the family, baking bread and knitting, is as mythical and beautiful as a Norman Rockwell painting. In reality, Grandma requires a lot of medical care and as much monitoring as a curious toddler. Put her in the middle of a boisterous family, add a few teenagers, with both Mom and Dad working full time, and you have a recipe for potential disaster. Place her in a well-run retirement community and you afford her the opportunity to remain independent -- and out of her daughter's kitchen.

Placed in the hands of caring professionals, Grandma can relax and concentrate on needlework, visit with new friends or even write a memoir. My new acquaintance in the doctor's office that day asked for the number of the retirement community. I pray that her family had the courage to consider a retirement community, for everyone's sake.

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