One of my good friends in California is moving into an assisted living facility next week. I know she’s freaked out. She’s lived in the same house for 50 years and has accumulated so much stuff, making her a prime candidate for hoarders.
About 2 per cent of seniors in the U.S. live in assisted living facilities. But around the world, living arrangements for the elderly vary. In many countries, seniors live with their children, and multi-generational houses are common. But things are different in the United States compared to other countries. Many people don’t want or cannot live with their families, and other options are expected of them. This is how it is for my friend. She wants to live alone, but she can’t. She doesn’t want to live with her kids and be a burden. And now the time has come when she needs to look at other arrangements besides living in a big house by herself.
Her husband died six years ago, which was a real challenge for her. She adjusted to his absence, but I know it was very difficult for her and she didn’t change the house much after he died. Then she had a stroke about two months ago, and soon after that, her older sister was killed while she was riding a horse. She can’t care for her 14-year-old dog anymore so she had to give him away. It’s been a perfect storm of heartache for her. And then other hardships have come her way. Because of her stroke, she no longer drives. Her memory is slightly impaired, so her kids are worried about her living alone.
For obvious reasons, they feel she should be nearby so they can look after her more easily. I try to cheer her up, telling her that going into an assisted living facility will be like entering the dorms again, except everybody is older. Her meals will be provided for her. There are lots of activities for socialisation, as well as maid service. But my efforts at keeping her positive don’t seem to be working.
I know she’s used to being surrounded by familiar things, even if she doesn’t use or look at them anymore. Relinquishing her husband’s possessions has a real emotional blow for her, only reminding her that he is gone. Shredding decades of memories only serves as a reminder of days gone by when she and her husband used to do a lot of international travel with their kids.
When I met her 20 years ago, we formed a singing group and performed around town at various assisted living facilities. So she knows a bit about what these places are like. Some people are lucid, some are very frail, others look like they’re on their deathbeds. I don’t know what to do to try and boost her spirits, except to be there for her if she needs to unload.
Life is full of expansions in contractions. It’s like a bell curve. We start so small, and we expand with family, jobs, and income, and then gradually things start to wind down, as our physicality diminishes. Often we are left more isolated as family and friends either move away or die. I unloaded lots of junk when we were in California a few years ago because I didn’t want somebody else to have to deal with decades of bad poetry, mediocre photography, hundreds of journals, and books that I would never read again. Although it was painful to relinquish these items, I knew I was not going to look at them very often. So I took a bunch of pictures and that was somewhat satisfactory.
I figured if the poem or story hadn’t been published, I didn’t want to try and rewrite it and try and make it work. If the photo hadn’t appeared n a magazine already, it probably wasn’t very good. I have my memories from family and relationships on my computer for the most part. But the other physical memories just take up too much space.
At what stage in life are you? Are you still living with your spouse or family? Perhaps you are alone and trying to make it on your own. Maybe you’ve moved to an assisted living facility and making the best of where you are. The journey is different for all of us. Some of us accept the change and go with the flow and others fight it vehemently. As I observe my mother-in-law in the other room, I am thankful that she is not combative or too difficult to care for. But she continues to contract, staring out into space. I wonder what she’s thinking or feeling.
We have contemplated putting her in an assisted living facility, but there is so much squabbling going on between the family members that it hasn’t happened yet. Is she happier just being with us? Or would she be better off under the care of qualified medical people who can offer her more stimulation? It’s hard to know.
When I talk to her, she says very little. She’s like a flower in a reverse bloom. Someday she will be gone and we will revisit memories of her, including the many videos that I have made of her over the years of her doing what she loves to do best-Sing.