Being sensitive to parents’ feelings about assisted living

As my siblings and I have been immersed in moving our parents into assisted living and cleaning out their home, it became apparent that the logistics aren’t all that need our attention. Their feelings about the change need care.

“I can’t believe how K______ [Mom’s doctor] messed us up,” Dad griped in a phone conversation last week. When Mom was about to be released from a rehabilitation center, Dr. K______ told them that they should not go home and live alone.

Even though he’s 99, Dad thinks he could have gone on taking care of Mom, as he did before she fell and broke three bones in July. He was especially upset to learn that he had to give up management of her medications to nurses. He feels like a purpose has been wrenched from him. “It’s terrible, they’ve got her medicine locked up,” he groused.

Another complaint is that he didn’t have his car out the whole first week after the move. Why did he keep it if he’s never going to use it?

Mom’s mood swings from trying to be accepting to grumbling about everything they couldn’t bring to their new apartment, which is less than half the size of the condo they left. She also confessed to being “shocked” by how often staff come to their door. “I didn’t understand it was going to be like this,” she said. Nurses come in four times a day to administer her medications and three times overnight to make sure all is well. (They’ve never awakened my parents.) Staff knock on their door at mealtimes to remind them to go to the dining room.

To my mother, it seems excessive. To my dad, it seems infantilizing — particularly since he’s not the assisted living patient, my mother is. With osteoporosis and arthritis, she’s the one who needs to use a cane or walker. Seven years older, my dad takes few medications, is steady on his feet, and is still driving.

This is a huge change that will require more support than saying “You’re safer now,” “Life will be easier because you don’t have to clean, grocery shop, cook, and do your laundry,” and “Isn’t it great that there are tons of activities every day?”

The new circumstances don’t look like an improvement to them yet. They loved their former home, neighbors, and location. Until Mom fell seven weeks ago, they took themselves to daily mass, the grocery store, medical appointments, and restaurants. Then their life was upended by Mom’s fall and subsequent surgery, hospitalization, and rehab.

The decision to move into assisted living was not the result of long discussions. The Monday after Dr. K______ recommended it, my sister took them to see a place, and they signed a lease on Friday and moved in Sunday. In all honesty, we made the decision and they went along. In less than two months, they went from independence to feeling they have to rely on other people for everything.

“We still have to figure out a way to make Dad feel better,” my brother wrote in a text. “He’s saying, ‘K_____ shouldn’t have made us move.’”

I’ve decided for the time being that giving them pep talks isn’t the way. They need to grieve what they left behind and the reduced independence and control over their lives. They don’t need to hear us talk at them about the wonderful activities and people in their new community. I’ve been trying to be better at listening and acknowledging their feelings. When Dad says, as he has frequently, “We’re too old to go through this disruption,” I agree that a move is hard at any age — and keep my “but there was no alternative” to myself.

I also think we’re being overprotective if we don’t want Dad to take Mom out. Not having to grocery shop anymore, he has nowhere to go without her. Despite the many activities at their new place, they shouldn’t feel like they are in prison. They could resume going to daily mass. Their new church is only two miles away and has no stairs to imperil Mom.

We want to hear them say they’re happy. It would make us feel better about what we’ve done to them. But realistically, we’re not likely to hear that for a while. We need to give them time to adjust. If they’re like friends’ parents who moved into a retirement community, they should start liking it in a few months. In the meantime, I’ll squelch the pep talks.

*****

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  • Parents often rely on children for all kinds of help. However, that's a choice. Having to make a life altering change is stressful, especially when it wasn't your idea. We don't have kids so we will have to, at some point, decide what will happen when we no longer can fend for ourselves. Maybe that's an advantage, to be forced to make decisions now because we won't have help from family members. I do agree with your approach of allowing them time to grieve their loss of autonomy.

  • Thanks for writing, Al. I also have no children and need to think about the sometime-in-the-future possibilities while I still have my wits about me.

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