Thursday, September 10, 2009

Housing Our Elderly in a Dormitory of the Dead

"This is a terrible way for a man to die," Dad said last week in one of his moments of clarity." But what are the options?

In my house in Winter Park, I had a really charming apartment over the garage with a peaked ceiling and a fireplace. It was so cute that it was easy to keep it rented, though it was not always easy to find just the right kind of person to be such a close neighbor--that is, to have living right on my property with me.

One year, I rented it to a really nice lady from San Francisco, who had come to Orlando to help organize her father's affairs. He had Alzheimer's, she said, and she had given up her life in San Francisco, rented her home to friends, and come out to Florida to help get him settled for this final stage in his life.

How sad, I thought to myself, but naturally this will never happen to me. Life must have looked down on me and had a good laugh at that one.

Georgia was a wonderful person, a terrific tenant and a kind friend. She told me about a support group she was attending for Alzheimer's families (it is one I later attended myself). She pondered with me about how we keep everyone alive now with various treatments and medicines, so that they can all live to be a zillion years old and then die in nursing homes. Still, my parents continued to be self-sufficient long into their eighties and I just assumed they would continue to be like that forever. Georgia's problems didn't touch my own life back then. Silly girl.

It was a year and a half ago that my father was diagnosed with dementia of the Alzheimer's type. Now my sister and I are doing just what Georgia did: we are spending a lot of our time organizing his finances, handling the crisis management, making sure he is safe, hiring caregivers for his home, and planning for whatever time he has left in the best way we can.

Today we toured another nursing home and it turned me into a basket case. People, in various stages of decrepitude, spending over a hundred thousand dollars a year each--money they worked for and saved all their lives--to live in what is essentially a dormitory for the dying. It was a lovely place, as these places go, but yuck and double yuck. I'd rather be hit by a truck.

Who would want to go there? No one in my family that is for sure. But we are having to spend about twice what a nursing home would cost, to keep our Dad at home and we worry that there won't be enough left for Mom's care. The other option: to hire a caregiver for less than the going wage and pay them under the tabled seems unfair to us. Break the bank or break the law. What a choice.

It makes me think that living fast, dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse isn't such a bad idea after all.

It is too late for me to die young. But perhaps I was a little overzealous, a decade ago, when I quit smoking and started to take better care of myself. What fools we mortals be.

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