Looking Into Assisted Living
Long Distance

By J Lang Wood

It was sometime late in 2003 that I realized something had to be done with Mom. She had reached the end of her ability to manage her affairs independently, and the reports I got from family and friends in Illinois began to fill me with alarm. And as I lived far away in Florida and knew that Mom had no desire at all to move from the Chicago area where she had lived all her life, I knew I had to manage to somehow find her a suitable situation long-distance.

Assisted Living was a relatively new concept to me. I learned it was a system by which seniors entered a sort of group home facility, while still retaining a modicum of independence. Generally, the residents have their own apartment or separate bedroom. Often daily meals, laundry services, housekeeping and transportation are provided. It sounded like a perfect solution for my independent, social-butterfly, 87-year-old mother who was becoming too frail to live on her own.

Some families in America still manage to take their elders into their own homes, but changing job locations, long work hours, and other family responsibilities may make this impossible. Even getting seniors to places where they can socialize with others of their own generation and experiences can be a logistical nightmare. Assisted Living seems to fill these gaps nicely. There are always social activities, outings, guest speakers, card games, bingo, and religious services. Doctors come to the facility to treat medical needs, and caregiving assistants monitor the residents for changes in diet, behavior, and activity level. Yet there is always the ability for the resident to retreat to his or her own ‘separate space’ to regroup should the need arise.

Thank heavens for the internet! I was able to search web sites for eldercare facilities and all kinds of advice. This in itself is an education that took some time, because the costs and accommodations vary so widely and the legal issues can get complicated. By process of elimination, I began to see what was do-able. It also led to that ‘serious talk’ with my mother about financial resources and planning. Of course, I was a bit fearful to broach these subjects. Mom has always run her own affairs, and intruding into these personal details intimidated me, but these are the realities of modern life, and we both wanted what was best for her. If you, like me, are dealing with someone from the ‘Greatest Generation’ age bracket, rest assured they are not ignorant of financial realities. If a parent has reached the point where independent living has already made their circumstances muddy and confused, they will appreciate the help, as long as you include them in the process.

At this point, I was ready to look into specific state resources for elders. Often, if assets will not cover the monthly assisted living fees, one can ‘pay down’ assets and then go onto state aid. If a parent’s needs fall into this category, you will have to look for ‘subsidized care.’ This varies greatly from state to state, so I looked into Illinois’ Department on Aging and Health and Human Services Division. I was sent an enormous amount of material to sift through on programs for elders, which ranged from in-home care to full nursing home facilities. Over time, I was able to whittle it all down to what would work for Mom. I was fortunate in finding an assisted living facility affiliated with her particular religion, which allowed for daily services and special services for Holy Days. Many religions have endeavors in this area of elder care, and I would encourage anyone to look there first before going into state-run facilities.

Now came the interesting part-visiting the facilities. I approached this with some trepidation, but Mom was more than ready to give the idea a chance. I was lucky in that the timing had worked out perfectly. Even so, it is important to receive the specific information on each facility and have all questions answered beforehand, if possible. Other questions will arise when you visit and the director of the facility always seems happy to answer any questions asked, and will find out for you whatever he or she can’t answer immediately. But here are the things I was ‘testing’ the place for when we visited: Did the entire facility have a cheerful ‘underbeat’? Did the residents look happy and engaged? Was the place scrupulously clean? Was the staff approachable and interested in residents? Was there a sense of fun and enjoyment there? Was it run professionally? When all these questions were answered ‘yes’, and when I saw Mom chatting effortlessly with the staff, I knew I had found the right place for her. I confess, I was intimidated by all the paperwork, but the office staff was very experienced in these matters and was able to offer a great deal of help.

Preparing for the move itself required the most from both Mom and myself. Dismantling a household can be a sad experience, with regret about what is being left behind or thrown away. It can even be a time of relief with shedding the burdens of the past and anticipating new experiences. We took some time to share stories and memories. And we packed Mom’s favorite books and pictures, music and pieces of furniture all those things that make people feel more at home in new surroundings. The day of the move brought sudden panic on both our parts. But we were able to talk through our fears. Knowing I would be far away made it especially difficult. I wanted to be sure I had chosen the right place, and that I would be available to send my Mom anything she might need. But we were able to remain positive and tried to make the moving-in experience fun and reassuring. We toured the facility once again, hand in hand, to make sure Mom knew where everything could be found. We drew a little map of the place and put it under a magnet on the refrigerator door. We met a few residents and found some common interests and background. We cried a little, laughed a little and made sure we could stay in close touch and that the staff would know how to reach me.

Six months later, Mom has adjusted nicely to her new surroundings. We talk on the phone once a week. I fly to Chicago for the big holidays. Clearly, things are different for my mother. She no longer has the burden of household bills or transporting her frail body from here to there on daily errands. She has much more help with these things and medical care is just a buzzer call away. Visits with family are filled with more gifts and flowers and more time ‘catching up’ on events. It’s not the same as it was, but if you asked her, you might find things are exactly as they should be.

J. Lang Wood's stories, essays, and articles have appeared in California Business Online, Island Sun News, Songs of Innocence, and Perigee Arts Magazine. She combines her love of writing with the demands of running a business. A former Chicagoan, she lives with her husband on Florida's Gulf coast.

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