Tough Times & Good Times: Transitioning into Assisted Living

By Doug Ozeroff

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The panic in my wife's cousin's voice was obvious as we listened to his message on our answering machine nearly two years ago. We had just returned from a lazy summer afternoon around Victoria's Inner Harbour during Folkfest. Our stomachs dropped. Betty, my mother-in-law, had tripped and fallen, breaking her elbow and incurring some significant facial damage in the process. 

Betty was no stranger to falling. She's had some spectacular spills throughout her life, including tumbling down the stairwell at Craigdaroch Castle a number of years before. This time it was going to be different. Three months before, Betty's husband had passed away and now with health conditions restricting her abilities (including the onset of Alzheimer's, osteoarthritis and a heart condition), we knew there would have to be some changes. Betty was going to have to find a new way of living.

Many months before the heart wrenching phone call, we spoke with my wife's parents about their combined health issues and what was likely to happen as they continued to age. We discussed the option of moving them into an assisted living facility. We even went as far as going on a couple of tours at different facilities. To us these facilities looked like the best place for them - secure, no maintenance, staff on hand for emergencies and prepared meals. Still, it was very difficult for two independent people to accept that they might need some "help." Emotionally they weren't ready for it... and frankly, I don't think my wife and I were either. Looking back, I think it was much easier for me to accept their excuses for not moving and to continue (against mounting evidence otherwise) to hope they would just get better. As it turned out, whether we were ready for it or not, reality and a crisis forced the decision upon us.

While Betty was in the hospital recuperating, several assessments were done and the search for assisted living accommodation began in earnest.

'When did that happen?' I kept wondering, 'When did I take on this new role of parent?' I mean, don't we always go to our parents for advice or direction? Now the role of child and parent seemed reversed and like good parents we had to consider what was best for Betty, even if she couldn't or didn't want to accept it.

About a month after being released from hospital (and through many shifts of relatives and friends checking in) we moved Betty into an assisted living facility near her old neighbourhood.  

It hasn't been an easy move...for any of us. Denial, anger, guilt, relief, we've experienced it all over the last two years. For Betty, initial anger has turned to acceptance and even (dare I say it) some enjoyment.

But my story, Betty's story isn't always the norm. It wasn't a crisis that moved Paula Wills to into the realm of seniors housing, it was her mother Maxine Peterson asking her for help. After living for almost 25 years in a beautiful, large apartment, Maxine had been alone since her husband passed away in 1994. Maxine's health took a turn last year and she found herself living in her daughter's home. Maxine knew it was only a temporary solution and brought up the idea of moving into an assisted living facility.

"I was trying my most desperate to leave Paula's, not because I don't love them dearly, but I knew that I was putting a burden on them both. So I was really anxious to find a place," says Maxine.

 "I was very worried about her," agrees Paula, who, along with her husband, had some serious health concerns of their own. "If she continued to live on her own, she would only continue to decline physically." 

Paula became her mother's advocate, working on a ray of hope with endless possibilities for a new and healthy lifestyle.

"It was a relief that we were on the same page," smiles Paula reflecting on the experience. "We wanted the same things for each other and it worked out so well."

And for Maxine?

"I couldn't wait."

Maxine been living several months at her new place and Paula is extremely happy that she's back to a mother-daughter relationship instead of a mother-daughter/caregiver role.

"Both of us are doing so well and I can't believe how happy we feel and we tell each other almost every day."

While Maxine and Paula have the fortune of living in the same city and experiencing the transition into assisted living together, many people are managing the challenge of helping a loved one, transition to assisted living in other parts of the country or world.

Andy Bryce and his two brothers have recently experienced the difficult logistics of setting up alternative living arrangements for their parents in Ontario, while living themselves in B.C.

Andy's parents had purchased their dream country retirement home in the mid 80s in southern Ontario. In 2003, Andy's father had been diagnosed with first stage Alzheimer's and his mother had been dealing with some chronic heart problems.

In the middle of summer 2004, Andy's mother suffered congestive heart failure, barely making it to the hospital some 25 minutes away from their home.

"That of course, scared us all," says Andy. "We were concerned that something would happen to [my father]... but really the person that it had the most effect on was my mother; she's not a young woman, she's got heart problems and she's trying to take care of an Alzheimer's patient."

The family had discussed the idea of moving, but the siblings felt that their parent's idea of downsizing to a smaller house in town wasn't realistic. To the children, assisted living appeared to be a better fit.

"We had been trying to convince my mother, who had basically become the decision-maker, that it was time to move on and sell the house and get into a different situation," says Andy.

His mother was reluctant and didn't want to upset her husband. The brothers knew that something serious would have to happen before their parents would consider moving. When Andy's mother wound up in the hospital, things changed quickly.

"We had to do something. There just was no way that she could take care of that property and take care of my father, have a decent life of her own and take care of her health at the same time, it just wasn't going to happen."

The middle brother went to deal with the immediate issues like care for their father, followed by Andy, whose job was to basically convince his parents that it was time to move into an assisted living facility.

"It wasn't a problem. I was really surprised. I think that once the heart attack happened, my mother was quite happy to make the change."

His mother's career in nursing led them to a connection at a facility that was looking for more tenants.

Andy takes a deep breath and sighs; "It looked pretty overwhelming... daunting. First of all, we had to find a place to move into that was going to be comfortable, we had to sell the property, we had to clean out the house... my mother, for instance, had a huge collection of antique glass that had to be disposed of."

It was also quite obvious to Andy and his brothers that their mother was going to need heart surgery at some point in the near future.

"All of these issues had to get dealt with in an extremely short period of time. From her heart attack to getting them moving into the assisted living place, all took place in a period of just over a period of only two months."

With the crisis behind them and his parents settled into their new home, Andy feels mostly content with the outcome.

"I think there are benefits... there's a sense of security. My mother feels like she's not the only one taking care of my dad now and, as my mother said, 'I don't have to peel another potato again.' I think there's a feeling of relief but, of course, there's big loss. You sort of feel guilty about the fact that you're not there all the time and you've taken them out of their dream home. It's a beautiful place and I think they miss it; they miss their things. But I don't think they miss it as much as they thought they would."

"I think we were lucky," says Andy. "Some good things happened to us at exactly the right time. But, in retrospect, we didn't deserve to be that lucky. We should've been more aware of what was going on and what needed to happen."

Andy recommends to anyone going through similar situation to do your research.

"Find out from the provincial government what kind of services are available, make sure you've explored all those possibilities. Do your research."

 "I would encourage people to not wait too long because they'll miss out on the friendships and the enjoyment of the retirement residence experience," says Paula. "Assisted living was the best option for my mother. It was a combination of turns and events that not only extended her life... but probably saved it."

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