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It isn’t so easy being old

I didn’t realize I was wading into mine-laden territory in my Saturday column about the angst that can accompany an elder’s move to a senior living community.

The column was intended to show that life in even the most accommodating senior complexes exacts concessions in exchange for safety and convenience. It featured Meril Graf, an 82-year-old resident of Westwood’s Belmont Village, who talked with me about the tradeoffs; her mixed emotions clear as I kept probing.

Her assessment — shared in my voice, seen through readers’ eyes — must have sounded more down than up.

“I have to conclude that you woke up this morning and thought … hmmm, what can I write that will be totally depressing, completely discouraging to a large segment of the population and have no redeeming features whatsoever,” wrote Helen T. Givens, an “over 80" resident of La Mesa.

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That wasn’t what I intended, nor what Graf, a candid and thoughtful optimist, meant.

I didn’t anticipate that readers would take offense at Graf’s admission that being around elderly people all day can feel like a relentless reminder of encroaching frailty.

But then I’m still a couple of decades away from touring retirement homes. And with no elderly parents to worry about, I have the luxury of detachment that distance brings.

Graf helped me peer down the road at the prospects of life around the bend. She enjoys Belmont’s classes and cultural events. Her apartment is comfy and elegant. But she misses her former Marina del Rey home, with its spacious kitchen, the beach below and the comings and goings of grandchildren.

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That seems to me like a balanced ledger of the accommodations aging requires. Many readers wrote to say they appreciated her honesty.

“I’m trying to stay upright and in my cozy nest,” said reader Ann Perenyi, 78, of Fullerton. “But as Ms. Graf says, it’s ‘the right thing to do’ to spare everyone the chore of dealing with someone who can’t get herself together any more.”

Still, Givens was not alone in seeing it otherwise: “Shame on you,” she wrote. “For the thousands of seniors who are still living an almost independent life and a happy one, you have reminded them that … their time is coming and it will not be pretty.”

Sorry, then, for the reality check.

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A few readers bristled at the very concept of shuffling seniors off to live separately. “Warehousing is warehousing under any name or at any price,” wrote Harold Shapiro. “As a culture we perpetuate this practice whether for the poor or the well-to-do. We essentially relegate the elder in our society to the sidelines.”

Others championed their own senior living communities. I was invited to Claremont to visit Pilgrim Place, to Walnut Village in Anaheim, to Glendale’s Windsor Manor and to Laguna Woods Village (nee Leisure World) by 88-year-old Walt Wood, who warned me: “you’ll have trouble getting a word in edgewise.”

Wood has lived in the sprawling 18,000-resident complex for 20 years, he said. “I write books, work out in the gym every day … drive here and there, do all my own cooking.” He also suffers from diabetes and dizziness, doesn’t walk well, has had a triple-bypass and part of one lung removed. “But I don’t dwell on those things,” he said. “And I couldn’t be happier.”

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His situation highlights two important factors in senior satisfaction: It takes time to make peace with lifestyle changes that aging brings. And elderly people living in senior housing are happier, more alert and may even live longer when they have broad choices and the responsibility to decide how they spend their days, according to a study by a Harvard professor.

Places like Belmont Village aim to honor both. “We understand it’s hard for new residents to adjust. The move represents what they left behind. And they have to grieve for that,” said Laurie Nussbaum, a Belmont staffer who has become a sort of surrogate daughter to many tenants.

“We try to help them focus on the positive — the social groups, the lectures, the guests.... It’s great when you see them making friends, taking care of one another. It’s like dorm living for senior citizens.”

But it’s the kind of upscale dorm, with monthly rent for assisted living units running about $8,000, that would be off limits to all but the very richest college kids.

Or as reader Sherri L. Barnes pointed out via Facebook: “Loved today’s column; can you do a similar one for those of us who can only afford $2,000 a month? And that’s for my mom, I’ll probably be tapped out when my time comes.”

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For those of us trying to stare down aging — worried about each new ache, misplaced set of keys and brain freeze when we forget a name — we ought to focus less on the existential acceptance of mortality and more on the prosaic “How am I going to afford a place where residents aren’t left to wander the halls with drool dripping from their chins?”

Many of Belmont’s residents rely on private insurance policies to help pay the rent. But insurers are bolting from the long-term care business, and those that remain are raising premiums.

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Now, some policies pay as much as $300 a day toward living assistance. But only a small percentage of Americans have them, and the need is growing rapidly as states slash Medicaid spending, life expectancy rises and baby boomers hit geezerhood. Insurance companies see that as a lose-lose; their payouts could dwarf our premiums.

The new national health reform package makes some accommodation for that, with a program that pays an average of $50 a day for long-term care. That won’t buy much when a spot in a basic assisted-living facility runs about $40,000 a year.

That leaves many of us in the same bind as reader Pat Adams, a former Angeleno now living in Atlanta, who moved her aunt into a $140-a-day Inglewood nursing home: “The food was terrible, the place was drab, but I was just relieved that it stayed clean and didn’t smell like urine as so many other facilities do,” she wrote.

Both her parents are 87, living on their own in Los Angeles. “I pray that they are able to stay independent a few more years, and also that when the time comes, I can take care of them in my home. I just don’t want to think about it.”

Neither do it. And if I do, I’ll try to be more upbeat about it.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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