May 8, 2000 -- To join or not to join? To stay in my own home or move to a retirement community? That is the question I faced, when, like so many of us oldies, I found myself alone and ailing after my husband died.
Mine was a familiar story. We had retired in Santa Fe to spend our waning years in a spacious adobe house overlooking the Sangre de Cristo mountains. He was healthy, I was frail from a radical mastectomy and bad osteoporosis. It seemed likely I would be the first to go, but fate intervened. He died of a sudden heart attack, and I was left to cope with the remainder of my life.
When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
I had a friend who bought a one-room studio in the city's El Castillo Retirement Residences, a "campus for seniors," the brochures said. I visited her, liked her compatible companions and the fact that she lived in a bower of green by the Santa Fe River, near the cathedral and the downtown plaza. The buildings had a pleasant hacienda flavor.
I decided to follow my friend's lead to avoid becoming a burden on my family. A $1,000 refundable deposit put me on a waiting list for an apartment while my health and bank accounts were examined. Would the house doctor agree that in spite of my problems I was well enough to live independently? Would my pensions and other investments be deemed sufficient to afford the price of admission and the monthly maintenance and dining-room fees? Satisfied that I met the requirements, I was allowed to buy a two-bedroom apartment, which I remodeled a bit before moving in.
Thus settled, I am now entitled to total care for the mind, body, and soul, from "independence" to "assisted living" to "MedCenter care" until I die, freed from the hassles of home ownership. Maids, nurses, helpers, and maintenance men see to my daily garbage collection, weekly laundry service, and transportation to doctors' appointments, grocery stores, church, movies, plays, and concerts. The community also offers an array of in-house drama, art, music, and exercise programs. I go to yoga and chi gung classes to improve my breath and balance.
With all these options, we residents defy actuarial tables with daunting longevity. For example, one of my new neighbors is the 107-year-old former assistant secretary of labor during the Roosevelt administration. I eat my Heart Association-approved meals with 90-year-olds who visit Cuba and Iran, or with a computer-savvy octogenarian who exchanges photos via the Internet with her great-grandchildren in Zimbabwe.
In a memoir-writing group, I learn that K., a social worker/anthropologist now past 80, ventured alone at 22 to do wartime field work in the then-wild Territory of Alaska; that J., with "straight hair and crooked teeth" was left with three young ones to run a Vermont poultry farm while her husband went to war.