This is the second in a series on senior living to run during 2014. This issue, we explore accepting the need for assistance and making the transition. Part one examined evaluation of assisted living options. Future articles will take a look at finances, wills, end-of-life care, nutrition and maintaining an active life.
Moving to a retirement community didn't come easy for Dan and Lois Lawler.
Starting two years ago, Dan's health problems halted his yard work, driving and crafting wood in his beloved shop. Lois, 87, was taking up the slack around their McMinnville home. Even with the burdens, they were reluctant to move.
"You get comfortable where you are," Lois says.
The Lawlers have five children, two in the Portland area. After their father's health deteriorated, it became clear to them that their parents needed to live somewhere that requires less maintenance. Most families such problems: How can we help seniors accept their decision to move and make the transition?
The Lawlers' children resisted the urge to treat their parents like youngsters; there was no pressure, but there was persuasion.
"We weren't saying 'You can no longer live on your own,' — we were saying, 'It will be easier for you if you can let go of some of these things,'" says Vicki Gotter, a daughter who lives in Tigard.
It took a year or more of conversation before the Lawlers reluctantly agreed. Then the children simply made themselves available to help. They aided as their mother culled possessions, a hard task for someone who grew up during the Depression. They found a son-in-law who would use and care for Dan's woodworking tools, which delighted him.
Still, after the move-in, the Lawlers were unhappy for several months, even at Hearthstone at Murray Hill, a solidly built Beaverton retirement village that includes fireplaces, water features, sumptuous common areas and many activities. They lost weight and grumbled.
"What is tough for me at this stage is that I can't walk out the door and get in my car and go someplace," says Dan, an 89-year-old retired educator who walks with a cane.
"We children hoped they would flourish immediately," says Gotter. Instead, it took about six months to adjust.
"For awhile it kind of felt like we were in a hotel," says Lois. "It seemed like we would be checking out in awhile. Then one day you come in the door and say, 'I'm home.'"
Dan explains that it was not until their house sold that he really began to accept the move. "That was really cutting the strings," he says.
The friendly staff and peers at Hearthstone helped, Lois explains. The Lawlers often find themselves lingering over breakfast for several hours with other couples. Lois plays cards with women and Dan shoots pool with the men. They attend prayer group and discussion groups for men and women. They usually attend the afternoon movie. They get Communion regularly when a visitor comes from the local parish.
Though she does get the urge to cook now and then, Lois does appreciate that someone else does the housework.
"We are happy here now," she says. "It does take time, even when you come to a place that is one of the best."
To seniors having trouble accepting their move, Lois has this advice: "You miss the things you don't have any more, but you just have to be glad you had them and move on to what is. Don't spend so much time being sad you don't have them."
Seniors with memory loss will be even more reluctant to make the move. Change is extremely frightening for those having trouble remembering what recently happened.
"If you can, do everything within your grasp not to force somebody," says Maiya Burbank of Pacific Pointe Retirement Inn in Southwest Portland. "They are not your kids, they are your parents."
Burbank does suggest having a conversation with seniors about what they want for their lives. "People need to know that they are still making their own decisions," she says.
She also suggests simply laying out the benefits of a retirement community: no housework, no worry about maintenance, no yard work, no cooking, only a single bill to pay, plenty of peers.
Once seniors have made the move, family and staff should make sure to introduce the new resident to peers and set out a schedule of activities, including meals.
"All of it will be foreign to people who for years have been eating a frozen dinner and watching TV," says Penny Holcomb, community relations director at Hearthstone. Without orientation and welcome, new residents tend to feel self-conscious and stick to their rooms.
Holcomb warns adult children not to be over protective. Let your parents venture into the community and make friends, she advises: "It's about making people feel they belong."
Though retirement living requires downsizing, many communities have space for the new resident to bring a few favorite pieces of furniture. Dad can have his recliner and mom can bring her best couch or the hutch. Keep in mind, the largest apartments in senior living are rarely larger than 1,000 square feet.
Many communities have nixed strict meal times in favor of restaurants that have generous open hours. That way, seniors can eat when they are accustomed. Those who find tablemates for meals have a big advantage when it comes to enjoying life.
Finding an activity niche early on is a key. One man at Hearthstone brought his harmonica to the church service and now plays every week.
Vanessa Ceryance, on staff at Laurelhurst Village in Southeast Portland, sits down with each new resident and gets a life story. She writes it up along with a picture and gets a copy to staff. So, it's entirely possible that the waiter at your first lunch will ask you about your days in the Navy or your daughter the doctor in Poughkeepsie.
It's vital to let new residents know they won't be forgotten, says Ceryance, who asks family to set up a regular visiting routine right away. She even reaches out to the resident's parish to suggest that parishioners come early and often.
"We say 'You are not going to be alone anymore,' and emphasize community," says Ceryance. Staff also tell new residents about the many activities and remind them that housework is a thing of the past.
One of the key entry questions at Laurelhurst Village is whether you like to go to Mass. For many Catholics, daily Mass on campus makes the transition smooth. Many who were too frail to attend their parishes can now be wheeled to the chapel on the ground floor.
"For some people, they wouldn't mind living in a shed as long as there's Mass nearby," says Mercy Sister Georgita Cunningham, on the pastoral care staff at Laurelhurst Village. "This is the baseline: respect for the needs and wants of the elder."