An old man sitting near the back of the church didn’t respond when the preacher asked all those who wanted to go to heaven to raise their hands. So, after the benediction was pronounced, an usher approached and said, “Tom! I can’t believe you don’t want to go to heaven.” “Oh, I do,” replied Tom. “Eventually. But I thought they were getting up a busload for tonight.”
I think that sums up the way most seniors feel about going into group or assisted living. It’s a probability, should they not leave this world with their boots on, so to speak, but one they’re not ready for right now.
I got to thinking about this the other day when news came that a dear first cousin of mine had fallen down for the third or fourth time and was in the hospital — for the third or fourth time.
She lives alone in a tiny town whose only amenities are two churches, a post office, bank, convenience store. Three daughters live within 20 or 25 miles, but two of them work and the oldest is in poor health herself. Their mother, who’s 88, won’t move to the larger towns, because her life — literally — is in the countryside where she was born and grew up, married, and raised her kids. It’s a big problem. You have to be a certain kind of person to remake your life somewhere else. Somewhere you’d really rather not be.
Lately I’ve been thinking that my own mother was just that kind of person, how fortunate for her that she was, and how easy she made her old age on my sisters and me. She was only 74 when she had the first of a series of small hemorrhagic strokes that began to affect her short-term memory, although leaving her unimpaired physically. She couldn’t drive because she wouldn’t have remembered where she was. She could no longer read a novel because she couldn’t remember the plot. She couldn’t have lived alone.
My husband and I found Hartford Place, a 20-person assisted-living facility, when we went up to Hattiesburg when she was discharged from the hospital. Our plan was for Mother to stay there, near her doctors, until she recovered enough to come to New Orleans. She would have to go into assisted living here, because both of us worked, our children were grown and gone, and she needed to be with someone during the days.
But by the time Mother had recovered from her hospital stay, been taken to her hairdresser and to her church, made friends with the staff and other women living at Hartford Place, she didn’t want to leave. “I wouldn’t take anything for the place where I live,” she told a friend as I eavesdropped, gratefully.
When I couldn’t go to Hattiesburg to take her out to dinner and spend the night in her big room with the twin beds, my sister from Tuscaloosa did, or the staff would put her on the train to New Orleans, and sometimes she’d spend the night and fly the next morning to see my brother in Virginia.
I didn’t realize how fortunate we all were until my cousin got sick. Sure, we found the right place, in a town where Mother had lived for some years; but that isn’t what made life at Hartford Place a success. It was her personality, her adaptability. I knew another elderly woman who had the same quality. She was 80 when she went into assisted living and 82 when she and a nice man who also made his home there were married.
Am I like these ladies? No. But they set the best of examples, ones I’ll keep in mind if the time comes. I once told a doctor-friend that Mother had the ability to live in the moment.
“Don’t you think you can learn to do that, too?” he said. With her it was effortless; for me, it will be an effort, but one worth making.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.