July 2014 Newsletter – Adjusting to Assisted Living

My dear friend ended up in the hospital recently, and then sent to assisted living. For the past ten years she has resided independently in a spacious apartment on the grounds of a large assisted living complex. Until two weeks ago, she was free to drive her car to get her mail, or venture out for groceries. It was not that long ago that she finally retired, again. She is one of those people who was lucky enough to be employed for decades at a career that was meant for her—providing her the opportunity to do what she loved. Her second career was teaching water-aerobics two-to-three times a week at the ‘Y’—for which she retired about five years ago—at the age of 90.

Having not married, nor having children, she has been independent all her life. It has only been a few months ago that she decided to allow someone to come to her home once a week for two hours to assist her with some laundry and shopping. She is so opposed to asking for help that she constantly refuses my offers to drive two hours to help, as I have frequently offered. She knows I would drop everything to be there for her, but refuses because she doesn’t want me to now see her in a condition of lesser health than I have known her to be in recent years.

My heart aches for her while she adjusts to her new surroundings. She had no say about what was transported out of her apartment to this new, small environment. She didn’t get to go back to her home and select any meaningful possessions to accompany her to her new space. She is used to getting up late in the morning and napping as she chooses in the afternoon—not used to constant interruptions of nurses checking her vitals, and insisting she attend breakfast at a designated time. Never before has she been on oxygen. Never before has she been directed to take pills for which she is unaware of their purpose. Never in her life has her life been so out of her control, unable to make her own decisions, unable to make her wishes known or acknowledged.

In our phone conversations she continually apologizes to me for her complaining; and I assure her I am here to listen to anything she wants to tell me. She knows I won’t respond to her new state of affairs with remarks, such as, “Your lucky to be alive,” or “You should appreciate the wonderful facility you are occupying—everyone should be so lucky to have the care you have.” I listen. I let her know I care. She knows she can tell me anything.

My friend’s plight calls to mind memories of my maternal grandmother when she was placed in a nursing home –although this was decades ago, to my mind then, it was a nearly horrific scenario. In Please Dance at My Funeral: A Celebration of Life I wrote in Chapter 9 about my grandfather, who lived to his mid-90s. “He was hospitalized after a fall that broke his hip. When he was told that he would soon be transferred to a nursing home for recuperation, his spirit was broken, too. He couldn’t be cared for at home during recovery, as his wife of over 70 years, and also in her 90s, was a tiny woman compared to his 6-foot frame. He died within hours—not living long enough to be transferred to the nursing home.”

Despite my personal memories and experiences, I do know that good extending living care can be an immense blessing. Not everyone has an option of a family care-giver. Not everyone can be cared for at home, but may need regular nursing attention. Not everyone can afford the quality of care we would all prefer. These issues and decisions are generally put off. My friend, without family, had the foresight to arrange for her “later years” while she was still healthy. She sold her house and moved to an independent living situation that would allow for her care as it became necessary.

The issue here remains to be about the adjustment that one makes from independence, to surrendering to the care of others. In Chapter 3 of Please Dance at My Funeral: A Celebration of Life, I address the loss of identity and the loss of self-worth as our life is altered all around us. “Unforeseen circumstances can result in the loss of one’s voice, of feeling devalued, unheard, and less respected.”

What becomes of our pride for our long self-sufficiency? How does one gently transcend emotionally from that independence to a resignation– “Well, I guess this is my life now… until my last breath.”

As I write these words from a place of empathy for my dear friend, revisiting all the emotions she has expressed in the last two weeks, I conclude with asking how we can best prepare ourselves for this time that she is now experiencing. The answer comes to my mind: Gratitude.

The affirmation and declaration at the end of Chapter 9 reads:

“Each day I give thanks.
Each day I pronounce with gratitude:
THIS IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF MY LIFE!
TODAY my priority to fully live this day is to __________________________
TODAY…my focus is on now, this moment, the fullness of this very moment.
TODAY…I give myself permission to live this day as I choose.
I give myself permission to complete this day in a way that makes me happy,
and in a way in which I feel empowered about my life.”

If I embrace my every morning and every evening with the habit of expressing genuine gratitude   ̶ above all else ̶  then that is what I have control over; and I trust that when I affirm that gratitude, and release all else, grace will pave my final days and help me live with peace in my mind and heart.