Baby Steps

My mom is officially “on her own” again after a whirlwind nearly 4 months. She is happy for the peace and quiet (actually calling my sister and leaving not 1 but 2 messages on her cell asking her NOT to come over yesterday so my mom could have a quiet day).

Well alrighty then.

No guarantees that at 89 she will be OK staying alone. But there are no guarantees at any age. We all feel pretty proud we were able to accomplish so much for her in such a short time (watching over her for 2 months in a rehab hospital and 5 weeks in an assisted living facility, concurrently overseeing a major construction and renovation project to add a first-floor bedroom and bathroom to her house, lots of clean-up/clean-out, then 3 weeks with 24/7 family care at home). I know we are very lucky we were able to do all this — in that same time, a good friend of mine lost her dad and another her mother. My mom lost a dear friend (fellow card-player) and a cousin. Talk about perspective.

Now it’s baby steps for her as she tries to adapt to independent living again (she loves being waited on, so it’s a big adjustment), and for us as we try to adapt to her independence, while still trying to manage everything for her behind the scenes.

But, ya know, those baby steps can cover an awful lot of ground, as all moms of toddlers know. We’ll have a few bumps and bruises (please God, no falls!) and hopefully get a little stronger and more confident every day. At least that’s today’s plan. 

In the book of life, the answers aren’t in the back.
                                                 ~ Charlie Brown

Aging? Sorry, I can’t afford to get old.

Just as my mother was settling in for a luxurious 4-week stay at Camp Senior (a lovely but expensive assisted living facility), we received a letter in the mail from Governor Rendell urging us to “Own Your Future” and plan for long-term living by ordering a handy packet of information or checking it out online.

I’m doing both, but stopped for a bit last night to browse the Web site. It’s the National Clearinghouse for Long-Term Care Information ( and is chock-full of tidbits that will make you wish Dr. Kevorkian was your uncle. Really, the basic message I got was that I and most everyone else can’t afford to get old.

Consider the handy calculator that lets you plan how much money you’ll need to pay for long-term care. You plug in the state you plan to retire in and the monthly amount you can afford to put away now for long-term care. It spits back the cost of long-term care in your desired state, how much your monthly savings will add up to, and (in my case) your laughable shortfall. Turns out Pennsylvania was the most expensive state I checked (as I obsessively started plugging in different states to find cheaper options). Deep South seems the way to go (Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas) with “traditional” retirement states like Florida and Arizona more expensive. Forget about New England (which I guess PA falls into).

So, even if Mike and I put away $300 a month for the next 20 years for long-term care, we’ll only save up half of what we’ll need (roughly $350K instead of the $700K needed). (Oh, and I didn’t notice if that was per person or not!) The site also outlines other options like long-term care insurance (if you qualify) and such, including “Do you have friends or family who can help take care of you?” Hmmm, how ’bout it friends & family?

It was all quite overwhelming and extremely depressing. What a world we’ve created where we can keep people alive far longer than ever before but with no thought to how they’ll actually live.

Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born
at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen. 
                                                         ~ Mark Twain

Lessons from the Third Floor

My mom is still recovering from her broken ankle in the rehab unit of a hospital. Tomorrow marks 5 weeks of her “confinement.” It’s the longest anyone in my family has ever spent in a “facility” (healthcare or otherwise), and my first experience with the day-to-day workings of such a place.

Aside from her stay confirming what I’ve always read and heard — that you have to be on top of every blessed detail of your loved one’s care, even though you are not a medical professional and he or she is in a (supposedly) skilled nursing unit — I am most struck by the other patients. Mum is one of the luckier ones. Sure, she has to use a wheelchair because she’s not strong enough to hop around with a walker (nor motivated to get strong enough through rehab, preferring to wait out her 14-week-non-weight-bearing sentence with some misguided idea that once those 14 weeks are up, she’ll be right back where she was before…living alone in her 3-story house, driving, playing cards twice a week with the girls, etc.). But she’s not ill as many of the others are. She doesn’t have a chronic disease, is still quite sharp for her 89 years, and has a large family to visit and watch out for her.

Many of the other patients aren’t so fortunate. Many are old and infirm. Some have been mentally or physically disabled (or both) since birth. Some have few or no visitors to break up the long days and nights. Many, many just want to be left alone, much to the chagrin of the “activities director” (à la Julie McCoy, your cruise director) who constantly cajoles, coaxes, physically moves, and otherwise “motivates” patients, trying to raise the slightest glimmer of interest in the games, puzzles, discussion groups, movie nights, and other activities he diligently plans “with no budget.” He’s a good guy fighting a losing battle, but he even gets on my nerves, and I’m only there a few hours a day at most.

Yesterday, I saw for the first time an old guy painting in the rec room where my mother and I go to play cards and Scrabble. The activities director had set him up there, with a few other patients around the table. He was hard of hearing and spoke loudly, so it wasn’t exactly like eaves-dropping. He talked about how he used to be an accomplished painter, had one oil painting that took him 4 months to complete exhibited in “the International”  (whatever that meant — I don’t think it was the Carnegie), and now all he could do was “slop around like this,” painting a dog house “a dog wouldn’t live in.” He was a hoot — about 96 he thought, though he couldn’t remember exactly. In his younger days he was an all-purpose contractor, doing painting, tiling, concrete, plastering — pretty much anything. Now he lived with his daughter (one of 2) and both were great to him, took him everywhere, etc. Of course, he added, “they know they get whatever’s left [when he’s gone]” although “they got money” already.

I really wanted to abandon the Scrabble game and go talk to him some more. He had me laughing at his dry comments, and reminded me of my own Grandpap. He was very matter-of-fact about his present state, a little wistful but not morbid in saying “I used to be able to do everything, but now I can’t do anything” and “You never know what you’ll do next.”

As one who has thought a lot lately about what the future holds and where I’ll end up “someday,” with no kids to see me through my dotage and no million stashed away to pay for long-term care, I’m glad to have this chance to glimpse what my own fast-forward might be like — maybe ill and infirm, maybe cheerful and pragmatic, maybe with my faculties intact, but maybe not. It makes you think, not just “holy cow I better save more money” thinking, but also about how fleeting our time here is, how it pays to make the most of your life so you have great things to look back on, and how attitude is everything. I can’t say I’m looking forward to old age, but, as they say, when you consider the alternative…

Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back
and realize they were the big things.
                                                                  ~ Robert Brault

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