It was my 97-year-old father-in-law Jack who suggested moving my 84-year-old mother into a retirement home. At first, I thought, no way, she'll never agree to it. She's lived in her house for 60 years, she hates change, and she doesn't want to be around old people.
But Jack's argument was compelling. His widowed mother, in the 1970s, had been depressed and fading in a big old house. Her sons moved her to a retirement home, where she became president of the social club and had five more years of vibrant living.
Jack is still in his Brooklyn apartment, but he's surrounded by friends and neighbors who drop in daily. My mother has been isolated in the suburbs, having worked for years in the family insurance business rather than cultivating friendships after my father died. Eight months ago, when exhaustion prevented her from working and left her almost bedridden, I began to worry.
She was sleeping 12 to 14 hours a day. The rest of the time, she watched TV. She left her bed only to go the bathroom or be driven to doctor appointments by my brother, who lives five minutes from her house. He started going over every day to make food for her. I'm more than an hour away and could only visit once a month. But I called daily, often to hear her moan about how tired she was. Some days, she wished she would die. The doctors tinkered with her medications to no effect, then shrugged and said she was just getting old.
Feeling helpless, I grasped at Jack's idea. It seemed to me that Mom's fatigue was related to depression and being part of a community might turn her around. My brother agreed, so I did a little research and, one day, I sat down with her to suggest moving to a nearby "independent living" facility.
"You want to get rid of me," was her reaction.
"No, Mom," I said. "This is for you. You would have people around to make friends with, you wouldn't have to worry about taking care of the house, and they would make you three hot meals a day. And there would be things to do—activities and classes."
"I'm just a burden."
It was true I was worried about my brother, who had many other family responsibilities, but my main concern was for her. "No, that's not it," I said. "It's not good for you to be alone almost all day. You seem so unhappy."
"No, I'm not. I'm fine. And those places are just like nursing homes. Once I get put away, it's all over."
"I don't think so. They're more like cruise ships."
"When I was looking after your grandmother and her health went bad, I put her in a nursing home and she died two weeks later. I've always felt guilty about it."
We dropped the subject for a few months, and my mother stopped telling me about her misery. Then my brother started working full-time again. He never complained to Mom, but when I heard his weary voice on the phone, I wondered how long he would last on this schedule.
A doctor decided my mother was dehydrated and put her in the hospital on an IV for three days. I saw her perk up talking to the aides and nurses. Her energy level improved, and when she returned home, she started walking downstairs to the kitchen once a day. Still, when I visited, her life struck me as depressing. I told myself not to impose my own values on her—but what if it was true that she would be happier and healthier living in a community? Didn't I have a responsibility to help her make decisions? It was hard to know. She still had "all her buttons," as she would say, but her world was extremely limited.
Finally, I went to check out the retirement home. It was clean and cheerful, more like a college dorm than a nursing home. My brother and I talked Mom into taking a tour. At the end of it, she stood in the empty studio apartment that could become hers and asked, "Would I bring a single bed or a double? Where would I put the TV? Maybe over there." I held my breath. "This place is very nice," she said finally. "But I want to stay in my house."
I don't like to impose my will on other people. In the next two weeks, the subject of the home came up only once, when I confessed to worrying about her on the days my brother couldn't get to her house, days when she ate a slice of deli roast beef for breakfast and sounded disoriented on the phone. "Don't cry, honey, I'm all right, really I am," she said. "I'm just not ready to move." I calmed down. If she insisted she was OK, I would trust her.
Two evenings later, when I called, she announced, "Your brother came over tonight and he looked so exhausted, I decided it's time to put me away."
"We're not putting you away, Mom!" I said, through tears of relief. "We're putting you in a place where you'll have a social life, and you'll be well taken care of."
She then gave me a list of the furniture she wanted to take along and questions for the administrators at the home. She wanted to buy a smartphone, and she needed a new comforter for the bed. For the next three weeks, she talked about nothing but plans for the move. I helped her sift through the decades of stuff squirreled away in her bedroom. This woman, after lying in bed for months, walked around the house, sorting, packing, directing and making decisions. I thought surely on moving day, she would be sad about leaving her home, but she sat sharp-eyed and cross-legged on the couch, making sure the movers didn't miss anything.
I doubt anyone has ever adjusted more quickly to a retirement home. If she has any regrets, she has not confided them in me. A week after her arrival, she told me, "I decided to make a list of everyone I've met here, to help me remember their names." There were 30 people on the list.
She praises the food, plays cards with her friends, goes to exercise classes, even walks outside once in a while, something I could never get her to do at her own house. She says she wasn't lonely there, that she moved so as not to be a burden to her children and she attributes her increase in energy to those three days in the hospital. For one evening, I brooded over her reluctance to acknowledge how much the move, which I engineered with such difficulty, has improved her life. Then I let it go. If she's happy, that's all I really care about.