With aging parents, a move for safety can still hurt
The first signs of my parents’ slippage was puzzling. How did they keep missing lunch dates and doctor’s appointments? Why did they unload the dishwasher before running it? How could they forget how to check their email or set their clock? My brother and I just hoped they’d snap out of it and go back to being the people they’d always been. It wasn’t until my dad screwed up his medications so badly that he landed in the hospital that we understood that this forgetfulness wasn’t just weird. It was dangerous.
People have been growing old and dim forever, so we figured there must be experts to guide us. We asked around and learned that the person we wanted was called a geriatric social worker in elder care management. We made an appointment with one. My brother and I felt instant relief. A professional was coming to the rescue!
Our hero talked slowly for someone charging $100 an hour. Mostly, she said things like, “These times of transition can be very difficult for people going through these difficult transitional times.” But we were so desperate to believe in her that we didn’t ditch her until she’d slow-talked her bill up to $633.64.
By then she’d persuaded us to hire bonded, CPR-certified, background-checked, drug-tested home caregivers at $25 an hour, payable to her company. She wouldn’t say how much of that money the caregivers got. She was sure my folks needed 24-7 care (for the math-challenged, that’s $600 a day, $4,200 a week, $18,200 a month) and she thought we were negligent for starting with only four hours a day.
Meanwhile, my parents struggled to understand what had hit them. As they saw it, they were doing just fine until I swooped in and started bossing them around, talking to their doctors, making a mountain out of a few cuts and falls.
Because they couldn’t remember what they’d forgotten, they didn’t recognize that anything had changed. It was heartbreaking and infuriating, seeing them struggle with concepts and tasks that were once simple and automatic. They didn’t get why I was suddenly snatching away the car keys, doling out their meds, pestering them about the date and the president’s name.
And who was that strange woman sitting at the kitchen table, asking if they needed help with anything? Help with what?
The caregiver’s presence so unnerved my mom and dad that we started touring senior communities in search of assisted-living options. Some places only provided five meals a week, leaving the residents to fend for themselves for the rest. But my mom in the kitchen with knives and boiling water, with her Parkinson’s tremor and failing sight, was among the horrors we were trying to avoid.
Some facilities were so huge that the trek from apartment to dining room was beyond my dad’s knees and stamina. The lobby of the most expensive one looked like a fancy deserted cruise ship about to set sail for the hereafter.
My parents couldn’t keep the places straight, but several of their friends knew exactly where my folks belonged and were eager to share their insights. But their certainty was in inverse proportion to their knowledge of my parents’ needs and situation. I held my tongue about what I thought they should do with their unsolicited advice.
Eventually, we settled on a place that had several pianos, an aviary near the front entrance and an aquarium at the nurses station. When we visited, my parents ran into people they knew.
Next began the process of wrenching my parents from their home.
Mom: “Let’s just leave the off-season clothes in the other closet.”
Me: “We can’t, Ma. We won’t have access to that closet after you move.”
To call it nightmarish is to imply that it was possible to escape by waking. But that was not the case.
Dad (on endlessly repeating loop): “Why do we have to move to that place?”
Me: “Because it’s not safe for you here anymore. I’m afraid that Ma is going to take a header down the basement stairs or you’re going to mix up your drugs and land back in the hospital, or worse.”
Condensing their sprawling suburban home into a two-room apartment meant countless decisions.
Me: “Which couch do you want to take?”
Mom: “The living room couch.”
Dad: “The one in the den.”
Eventually the movers came. My parents walked out their door for the last time.
Their cardiologist had backed me up. He told them they’d live like kings with people waiting on them, preparing their meals, doing their laundry. “All you have to do is stroll in the gardens and relax.” But my dad refers to the new place as a prison, their sunny apartment as “the hovel,” the helpful staff as “the guards.” He says he doesn’t remember a trial.
My mom says: “We know you just want us to be happy here, and maybe we will be someday. … (Sigh.) We’re trying.”
For comfort, I recall the sage words of our expert: “These times of transition can be very difficult for people going through these difficult transitional times.”
Amy Goldman Koss is the author of “Side Effects” and many other books for teens. This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.