You’re getting late night calls from your mother about your father behaving strangely. Your father is calling you at 3am wondering why you’re late picking him up for a doctor’s appointment set for 3pm the next afternoon. You’ve noticed some unexplained dents in your mother’s Nissan Sentra. You find yourself and your siblings argue more often about when it’s time to think about those two “hot button” words…Assisted Living. When you attempt to tactfully bring up the subject with your parent the reaction is something out of an Alfred Hitchcock film, complete with menacing violin music.
A few years ago, I found myself in the process of finishing up my Master’s Degree in Business Management with a focus on Eldercare Marketing. I decided to write my Master’s thesis on adult children’s perceptions of Assisted Living and the perceived levels of well-being their parents were experiencing once they had moved into an Assisted Living community.
To bear out my assumptions, I performed eight in-depth interviews with adult children in their 50’s and 60’s who had been instrumental in moving a mother or father into an Assisted Living community in the Boston area. Included here are a few of my most important findings…
Role Reversals May Be Required
In more than 20 years in this field I have yet to hear of a story in which Mom or Dad came skipping down the stairs to breakfast one day, all dressed, suitcase in hand, announcing, “Okay! Who’s driving me to Pleasant Oaks today? Walking club starts at 11am and I don’t want to miss it on my first day.”
Most people in their 80’s and 90’s can no longer effectively make decisions of this magnitude without the help of adult children. Problems arise when moving forward is required due to physical or cognitive decline but the heart is not always up to the task and adult children are not always ready to assume the lead role. A role reversal is often required to navigate this elusive passage. Some parents will be relieved that their children have finally taken this on and will acquiesce, while other parents will be offended and angry.
Deal with Misconceptions Head On
It is important to note that Assisted Living is just over 25 years old and therefore was not part of the societal landscape when these folks were younger. To some, those two words, Assisted Living may be synonymous with another two words, Nursing Home. The perceived loss of independence, paired with old images of dingy institutional buildings filled with disturbing clinical sounds and odors are both huge psychological obstacles that must be overcome.
Creating opportunities for new impressions and images to associate with is a key strategy. Many Assisted Living communities hold events, concerts, parties, lectures and day trips. Working with an Assisted Living in your area, discuss important interests your parent may have that will engage them and connect them with current residents. During a brief tour of a community, it is hard for a guest or visitor not to notice all the residents using walkers or canes, even the occasional wheelchair. Seeing lots of older people all living in close proximity can also feel disconcerting for a visiting older adult. It is during longer visits, or a series of visits, two wonderful things may begin to happen. First, as your parent gets to know a few residents, they will witness the obvious residential lifestyle and independence they enjoy. Secondly, those walkers and canes will begin to disappear as they get to know Sally or Betty or Ken. Once we get to know the person behind the device, we just see another person.
A Temporary Stay Builds New Perceptions
Prospective residents will come to these ideas through a variety of circumstances. One lesser-known option through which to help your older family member would be to attempt a temporary short-term stay. The purpose of this stay could be a 30-day window through which the parent can get to know the community, the food, their neighbors and fellow residents.
While taste-testing the food, joining in the activities and spending time with the residents and staff, the 30-day stay becomes very effective in showing the contrasts to a classic nursing home. This immersion in Assisted Living can be very tactfully negotiated with your parent perhaps after spending a few mornings or afternoons in the community. Throughout the short-term stay, guests will always possess the knowledge that they can come and go as they please. It is also effective because it maintains your parent’s autonomy. If they don’t like it there’s an exit ramp that leads back home after 30 days. On the other hand it’s hard for most people to remain aloof and obstinate for more than a few days. The short-term stay also allows the many conveniences of Assisted Living to be experienced first-hand. Three chef-prepared meals each day, one-on-one assistance with medications, access to nurses, transportation options and fitness facilities are difficult to part with after 30 days of good living.
I hope these three strategies lead to other conversations and variations that work for your family members who should be in an Assisted Living. Don’t give up…keep seeking help and asking questions.
About the Author
Lance A. Chapman is Assistant Executive Director at Goddard House in Brookline, MA, a not-for-profit Assisted Living community. With over 20 years in the Assisted Living industry and a Master’s Degree in Business Management with a focus on Eldercare Marketing, Lance’s expertise has often been put to the test helping hundreds of families navigate the ups and downs of moving a loved one into a community successfully.