Making the Last Move

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.

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.

I am at home with a few familiar antiques in a sunny upstairs apartment with a view of the mountains, and with neighbors who led adventurous lives; yet I think wistfully of what I have given up, and I see ghosts. I miss the home where the chamisas I planted sprig by sprig grew into a hedge, where the fragrance of a mock orange bush wafted through the window of the study, where all the familiar old books, many with handwritten dedications from people we knew well, tell our life story.

I gave all that up for elderly buildings full of elderly occupants. Permed white-haired ladies, paunchy men, oxygen tanks, walkers, wheelchairs. This picture doesn't resemble the happy faces on American Association of Retired People (AARP) magazine covers. To cope, I live in the present and seek the good things in my new life. I have come to prize the community spirit of my new friends, in spite of their current infirmities. We are there for each other with a cup of tea or a plate of pasta when someone's a tad laid up. I befriend the young attentive staff who commute from remote villages in rural New Mexico, who give us their all with warm smiles and friendly conversation. The smiling faces of the people pictured in the AARP bulletin seem more true now than they did at first.

Mine has been a familiar story of someone aging, with the added twist that once I lived in a world of expatriate intellectuals as the French-born wife of a Polish scientist. When I told a Polish friend that I now lived among native-born Americans from Washington and Florida, Maine and California, he exclaimed, "Now you have truly emigrated!"

Nora Frank is a freelance writer who has lived in the United States since 1938.