When I first pulled into the entrance of the assisted living facility, I thought I’d taken a wrong turn. The place was beautiful. It looked more like a sprawling resort than a penitentiary for the elderly. The landscape was manicured, the buildings attractive and well maintained, and two old ladies in wheelchairs smiled and waved at me from under an awning by the front door. I had imagined the residents would seem sullen and defeated, but these women appeared downright cheerful. So far I was pleasantly surprised. But then another, not so refreshing, thought entered my mind: this place is going be expensive.
Deciding on a long-term-care facility for an aging parent is a psychologically draining experience. The thought of putting my mom, who has lived in the same house on the side of a mountain in Western North Carolina for the past forty years, into what she refers to as an “Old Folks’ Home” makes me feel like a terrible son. It’s a feeling my mom works hard to maintain with comments such as, “You just want rid of me” and the passive-aggressive classic, “I’m sorry I’m such a burden.” Since I work from home, she sees no reason that I can’t work from her home, which I’ve been doing since her dementia has worsened. When I remind her that I have a house in Greenville, as well as a fiancé, friends, and, well, a life, she points her finger and says, “Do you think I’m going to live forever?” It’s her way of saying my life can start when hers is over.
Liza, the facility’s director, met me at the front desk with the kind of frozen smile that you see on the faces of politicians and real estate agents. This was months before the coronavirus, so we shook hands and then walked side-by-side through the common area, which looked like the lobby of a luxury hotel. As Liza gave me her spiel, I paid close attention to the residents who were shuffling and wheeling about. They seemed happy. They were socializing, something my mom desperately needs. When Liza showed me one of the “apartments,” which looked like a suite at the Four Seasons, I was sold.
In her office, Liza asked me if I thought the facility was a good fit for my mom. I said it was perfect—the only problem was that I might have to drag her in kicking and screaming. Then Liza handed me a folder full of bad news. First was the cost. A partially refundable six-figure down payment and a monthly rent roughly equal to buying a new Range Rover every year. “And we do have a waiting list,” Liza said. When she told me it would probably be at least a year before my mom could move in, I felt as if someone had reached down my throat and pulled out my will to live. “A year!” I said in a volume that was borderline inappropriate. Liza’s frozen smile melted into a compassionate grin. “I’m sorry,” was all she could offer.
Fourteen months later, my mom is still on the waiting list. But now, under current circumstances, not socializing is saving lives, and an assisted living facility is probably the last place she needs to be—although I’d move in tomorrow if they’d let me.