This piece was published in the Los Angeles Times on November 27, 2004.
My mother and I arrived at the outpatient surgery center promptly at 8:00 a.m. She
took me to the doctor when I needed to go, now it was my turn. They called her name
and she walked into the surgery suite while I wished her well and promised to guard her
A woman who looked to be my age was also waiting and we began to talk. She was with her mother-in-law, who was having a cataract removed. The similarity of our situations bonded us, as women often do. We are caregivers for our aging parents, members of a rapidly growing sorority.
Her mother-in-law had moved in four months ago. It seemed like a lifetime. Mama had
little short term memory, broke most of the heirloom china, lit the oven to heat food she
was supposed to warm up in the much safer microwave. She worried about Mama all
She no longer chatted with girlfriends at lunchtime but ran home to take care of Mama. She was getting nervous tics and fighting with her husband. Mama came to them because her daughter, the only other sibling, was worn out and went on anti-depressants.
I told her about my mother’s retirement community. My mom had an apartment on the third floor. Pull cords were placed in the bedroom and bathroom; one yank would bring help right away. She usually fixed her own breakfast and lunch but ate dinner in the
dining room with the other residents. The van went to the grocery and drug store
Her apartment was rented month-to-month. Although the fee seemed high at first,
it covered everything: utilities, cable, security, transportation, weekly cleaning, meals in the dining room, activities and, best of all, peace of mind for both of us.
When Grandma goes to live with family she is most likely in her 80’s or 90’s. In her
60’s and 70’s, she was probably traveling, still working or doing volunteer work. She
may have replacement hips or knees and survived cancer or a heart attack. It’s highly
likely she has a short term memory loss that makes her a danger to herself and others.
Modern medicine has yielded many blessings and living longer is a big one. That
longer life comes with a passel of medical bills, Medicare paperwork and prescriptions
that must be re-filled, not forgotten.
Most elderly people have several physicians, including, but not limited to: neurologists,
cardiologists, oncologists, internists and ophthalmologists. All those doctors order diagnostic procedures and lab tests that require appointments.If physical or occupational therapy is prescribed, yet more appointments must be made - and kept. Transportation has to be provided.
The image of grandma at home with the family, baking bread and knitting, is as mythical
and beautiful as a Norman Rockwell painting. Grandma requires a lot of medical care
and as much monitoring as a curious toddler. Life is frustrating and sad; end- of-life
issues must be faced.
Put her in the middle of a boisterous family, add a few teenagers, with both mom and
dad working full time, and you have a recipe for failure. Place her in a well run
retirement community and you afford her the opportunity to remain independent - and
out of her daughter‘s kitchen.
Placed in the hands of caring professionals - cooks, servers, housekeepers, security
personnel, activity directors and van drivers, Grandma can relax and concentrate on
needlework, visiting with new friends, or even writing a memoir.
My companion asked for the number of the retirement community. I wished her well as
she left with her mother-in-law. I hope the family will look hard at the reality they are
living and pray they will have the courage to consider a retirement community, for
Kathleen Vallee Stein