A place to call home
BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When is it time for an aging parent to hang up the house keys?
Some parents and their children have the good fortune to be able to make that decision together. Nancy Peck, 60, and her 31-year-old daughter, Therese Brigham, browsed a recent housing fair hosted by the Niskayuna Senior Center just to check out their options.
“Nobody knows where to start for this, unless you talk to an estate planner, which costs money,” Brigham said.
But they knew they had to start somewhere after Peck, who lives on a large piece of land by herself, suffered a minor stroke. “It’s time to downsize,” Peck said softly. She’s cared for her home for decades, the fifth generation to own the property, so the thought of leaving is difficult to digest. But her daughter has been encouraging the search, as well as the tough conversation that comes with it. “I’ve tried to tell her, ‘You want to make the decision when you’re able to,’” Brigham said. So far, the biggest challenges they’ve faced in their search have involved finding something that’s both close to home, in Rexford, and affordable. The places they’ve been interested in have had waiting lists between three and eight years.
Not everyone is willing to face relocation early on, as Peck is, and few have the luxury of sitting for years on a wait list.
Dawn Brasch, who works in marketing and sales for Holiday at the Atrium, a retirement community in Glenville, said she often deals with what she calls “influencers,” family members who hope to convince Mom or Dad to move somewhere healthier and safer. Sometimes, they’re just browsing, but often the need is immediate after a fall, an illness or the death of a spouse.
“They’re trying to do the footwork,” Brasch said of the adult children who typically call her.
Connie Nadas, 65, is one of those influencers. While traveling on a 100-day trip around the country, Nadas stopped in Kansas to find Wi-Fi and check in with friends and family. During that stop, she found out her 88-year-old mother, a Rexford native now living in Florida, needed surgery.
“We’re looking, just in case,” Nadas said as she browsed the housing fair.
Her mom didn’t know she was collecting information on retirement homes, but Nadas said she didn’t anticipate any resistance when she came clean. Her mother’s friends in Florida have mostly died, but there were still some old companions in Rexford to reconnect with, including her maid of honor.
“It’s important to have a plan B, and not just for your mother,” Nadas said as she collected folders of information on nearby facilities.
Brasch said she recommends influencers try to discern which places are viable options that will fit the family’s budgets and provide appropriate levels of social interaction, adequate safety and healthful meals. It’s also important to figure out which of three categories of care will suit an aging parent’s needs.
Independent living facilities are like apartments, only with support staff. They sometimes provide a meal or two per day, but not all meals. There’s often a cord in the bathroom in case residents need assistance, and there are usually organized community activities.
Assisted living facilities are a sort of middle ground. They typically have sheets for visitors to sign in and out and are regulated by the Department of Health.
Residents get the most intensive support at memory care facilities, which house people with Alzheimer’s and other issues that can endanger their safety. They’re typically locked and have 24-hour staff.
Brasch said the next step is to make sure aging parents feel they have a voice in the final decision, if possible. Some places, like Holiday, offer trial stays for a night or two.
“They feel like it’s a lot less pressure, and it’s an opportunity,” she said. “Nine out of 10 times, they want to make that move, but they’re too afraid.”
Things can get even more complicated when it comes to finding Mom or Dad a new home, especially when a parent is medically unable to decide. Entrusting the care of a parent to strangers can be scary for adult children, too.
Marcia Powers, whose mother, Shirley Strenk, now lives in the memory care unit at Ingersoll Place in Niskayuna, struggled fiercely with the decision. For two years, she cared for her mother in her own home, while her two brothers helped when they could from other parts of the country.
“I started the search when I realized I just wasn’t getting any sleep,” Powers said. “It’s an extremely difficult decision to give up the control and get a handle on your guilt.”
The decision was made even tougher by the knowledge that Strenk, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, had cared for her own mother as she struggled with the same disease. Her brothers both supported Powers’ decision to look for assistance with her mother’s care, but still, every step of the process was painful.
“I have to sell my mom’s house, and she doesn’t even know it,” Powers remembers thinking.
That was just a few months ago, and Powers now visits her mom almost every day. The differences are vast: Instead of feeling exhausted and isolated, she joins her mom for chair yoga classes in the memory care unit after a good night’s sleep.
It took a few nights for Strenk to adjust to her new home, but the change has been good for both mother and daughter. Powers said socializing with new friends has made her mother more energetic and has even helped her to let go of the embarrassment she used to feel when she forgot a name or a date.
Now, Powers visits her mom every Wednesday, and they bake cookies together for the other residents. She once made elaborate wedding cakes, but now, Strenk sometimes just helps out by rolling balls of dough in sugar and placing them on a cookie sheet.
Regardless, it’s a weekly appointment Powers looks forward to, one where she can make sure her mom is still happy in her new home.
“My whole life, she has made sure that I’m OK,” she said.
“When you’re going through it, it’s just giving up the guilt,” she added. “I did my mother a favor.”