I’m speaking to my fellow travelers here, the ever-expanding horde of aging baby boomers who are beginning to take the first steps on their senior living journey. And it is a journey, an adventure unlike anything we have experienced before, fraught with the excitement of life-changing incidents and decisions that actually do change our lives, and more than we can ever imagine.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to ease into the journey, who have planned our trip carefully, read the travelogues of the seasoned veterans, it’s a smoother ride. We zip along, thriving independently at home or in an active adult ecosystem that nourishes our minds, bodies and souls. I wish that for me and for you and for almost everyone else on our tour. But no map can tell you definitively what challenge looms around the next corner, and a major health episode or other unexpected event can derail even the most well conceived plans.
And for those of us who have been suddenly and unexpectedly cast upon the open road of senior living, and who are just beginning to be able to decipher the signposts and discover the way stations that offer guidance and respite, it can be a rough trip until we’ve gotten our bearings.
This unexpected journey might begin, as it began for me, when you’ve finally made yourself notice the dramatic changes in a parent whom it seems like just yesterday you were asking for advice, and whom today you’ve discovered hasn’t taken the garbage out or paid her bills in months, or showered for days. Weeks? Yes, it’s easy to ignore or rationalize the subtle changes as being part of the natural aging process — the forgetfulness, the unwillingness to learn new concepts or the inability to make new mental connections — but make no mistake, they are changes, and early harbingers of things to come. Maybe not so early.
Or perhaps a parent’s deteriorating physical health has compelled you to investigate what the care options might be. You’ll discover that whether it’s a mental or physical roadblock that has caused this life detour, the options are pretty much the same.
Your father can’t live by himself, and living with you would be not a burden, of course, but unmanageable. I’m not being sardonic here; that’s just the way things are today. He wouldn’t want to live with you anyway. So unless the decision is driven solely by economics or guilt, the first option is usually discarded.
Then there is the aging in place option, which to operate successfully requires some level of home modifications to make things safer and more accessible; and at some point, the engagement of one or more trained human beings to offer health care and support for the activities of daily living. Whether this job can be filled by family, friends or neighbors — or demands the professional intervention of home health care services — will only be known in time. Within the realm of aging in place also fall congregate living and the village concept, which are gathering more and more evangelists as their strategies refine. Most people would prefer to remain in their homes; many people find, with the right circumstances, they can live long and prosper there.
And the other option lies somewhere outside the current home, somewhere on the ever-moving senior living continuum that includes independent living, assisted living, Alzheimer’s or memory care, and long-term care or skilled nursing. This option contains the most radical lifestyle change, mostly because it involves moving to a new environment. Once the stress and shock of the move have subsided, however, and your parent has been assimilated into a supportive, nurturing environment staffed with professionals who are trained to promote mental and physical health and well being, the lifestyle change is a vast improvement over what they were so recently enduring. Your parent feels much better and so do you. Finally.
But making the decision, choosing upon which path to set another’s life, is not easy. And I lay this all out before you, and as much for myself, because I know that in another 20 or 30 years or so, our children will be helping us make the same choices, and I wonder what our options will look like then. More to come.