Our first reaction was “He can’t live alone.” How could he manage without her? She was his companion in the house they bought the year after they married nearly sixty years ago. A typical homemaker from the fifty’s era, she cooked for him, washed the laundry, managed the finances, later drove him where he needed to go, and did a hundred other things.
We assumed Dad couldn’t live alone primarily because the stroke he suffered nearly 15 years ago resulted in major right side weakness. During the ensuing years, he began to depend upon a leg brace and cane to walk and he gradually lost most of the use of his right hand. He reluctantly gave up driving two years ago. And we knew he would be lonely.
So we began visiting local senior citizen and assisted living complexes, thinking they would provide not only the basic necessities like his meals and clean laundry, but more importantly, companionship and social interaction as well. Our plan was to narrow the choices to three, give him the opportunity to visit all three and let him decide where to live.
The places we visited were bright and clean, some livelier than others, with lots of seniors living in them. They were filled mostly with women, because women tend to live longer than men. It became clear that, despite his physical handicap, Dad was far too well for an assisted living facility. However, one of the problems with many of the senior apartment complexes (as well as assisted living facilities) was their sheer size – the walk to the dining room would exhaust him. And, he would be moving in with complete strangers.
Slowly, it began to dawn on us that maybe Dad could stay in his own home.
Over time, we discovered he had a network of friends in his neighborhood who were visiting him regularly, walking with him, and bringing him things like a plant for the front porch, a pumpkin in the fall, a meal or a dessert.
Looking over his home, we realized it was a manageable size at about 1,200 square feet, and Dad knew every inch of it. We just needed to make it as safe and convenient as possible for him, so he could live independently.
The first measure of comfort for everyone was the alarm Dad agreed to wear. He can press the button if he needs assistance, and the monitoring company calls one of his children and sends EMS immediately.
The second, and most important change, was the bathroom renovation. Because of his right side weakness, Dad can’t maneuver his leg to get into the tub to shower, so he would go down stairs to the basement where there was a walk-in shower. That was a terrible accident waiting to happen.
We hired a contractor who was certified by the National Association of Home Builders as an aging-in-place specialist (CAPS) to rebuild the first-floor bathroom. He installed a walk-in shower with grab bars and a hand-held shower; new lighting; and made the doorway, vanity and toilet wheelchair accessible, if that need ever comes up in the future.
In addition to the grab bars in the bathroom, the contractor installed several throughout the house after Dad and an occupational therapist walked through it to identify the places where he needed them the most. The contractor jokes he could use Dad’s house as a “grab bar showroom” for his other clients.
Dad’s doctor has been an outstanding ally. At our request, he got Dad into physical therapy for a “tune-up” and he had an occupational therapist evaluate the house – all so Dad could continue to live there independently.
Dad can cook breakfast – he makes a mean omelet one-handed with “Eggbeaters” – and manages lunch and dinner, but we knew he’d appreciate meals he didn’t have to prepare, especially home-cooked ones. “Meals on Wheels” was a possibility, but we were particularly fortunate to find a neighbor who was very willing to prepare dinner for Dad three nights a week for a small fee. We pop in with a meal now and then, as do his other neighbors, and there’s no shortage of desserts delivered to his door.
The next step was to brighten up the house with new carpeting and a fresh coat of paint. And just before the first snowfall, Dad had a natural gas insert installed in his fireplace in the family room. Years ago he would build roaring fires everyone would sit around, and later, it would be just he and mom after the kids moved out. Within the last several years, however, they didn’t have any fires, because it became too difficult for him to carry in the wood and mind the fire.
Now in the evenings, he sits in his chair and hits the remote, not just for the television, but to turn on the fireplace – and regulate the height of the flames. We’re not sure which the better investment was: the renovated bathroom or the fireplace insert.
On the horizon is a DVD player so he can watch M*A*S*H reruns and other programs and movies he so enjoys. And he’s on the waiting list for “Honor Flight” next year, a program that transports World War II veterans to see their memorial in Washington, D.C.
The “Aging in Place in America” research study, commissioned by Clarity and The EAR Foundation and released in October 2007, showed that the vast majority of senior citizens want to age in place, or grow older without having to move from their homes. In fact, senior citizens fear the loss of independence and moving out of their home into a nursing home far more than death.
It would have been a big mistake to move our father. Even with limited physical mobility, he stills enjoys his independence in his own home. His house is safe and comfortable, and he has a support network that includes his children, neighbors, doctors and the wonders of technology. And, there are myriad other private care agencies to help us should we need to call on them in the future.