FIRST PERSON | Hazel Reitz
My husband and I lead active lives and are in pretty good health. But the years are marching on, and to our surprise we suddenly find ourselves in our 70s. A barrage of mail and phone calls pushing medical alert devices, walk-in bathtubs and lifetime care establishments underscores that sobering thought. While not eager to leave our comfortable home, the responsible thing seems to be to examine our options. So together with friends of a similar age, we recently embarked on a series of visits to local “life care communities.”
Our first visit was in response to an invitation for tea and a tour of an expensive, elegant establishment in the neighborhood. We walked into a vast hotel-like lobby with acres of beautiful rugs and were promptly handed cups of tea. I did my best to juggle umbrella, shopping bag, purse and the beautiful china cup and saucer as we were ushered toward a deep sofa. But as I sank into its soft cushions, I watched in horror as my cup tilted, gave in to the force of gravity and fell to the floor, its contents spilling all over the gorgeous rug.
As the waiter and our guide mopped both me and the rug and swore that no damage had been done, I was sure I saw them exchange a knowing look that said: Here’s one who’s more than ready for us. As we sipped our tea and feasted on petit fours and strawberries dipped in chocolate, the staff briefed us on the benefits the establishment had to offer, stressing it was important not to delay our decision too long. The main criterion for admittance, in addition to a healthy bank account, is being in good enough health to live independently at move-in time. Assisted care followed by long-term and end-of-life care are available later if necessary.
Several residents — or “inmates,” as one of our group referred to them — told us that making the move there was the best thing they had ever done. And they did seem to be a happy, interesting group: artists, writers, doctors, people who had traveled the world as had we.
We listened to the wonders available: comfortable apartments, a renowned dining room, beauty shop, gym, limousine service to the ballet and theater and opera, poetry readings, art lessons, cocktail parties and a myriad of other activities. There was even a designated person to assist with the physical move, providing advice on what furniture and such to bring.
The assurance that we would be taken care of from the minute we decided to make the move until death was appealing. We could cast off all the worries and responsibilities of everyday life and simply enjoy whatever years remain.
The apartments were compact — either one bedroom or two — but well designed and comfortable and free to be decorated as desired. Art filled the walls of the corridors. The lounges, sunrooms, sheltered patio chaises and a well-stocked library with a fire all cried welcome. When I saw a small cat ambling around the hallway, I was ready to move in right away.
It was only after we had left all its glories behind that we questioned whether we were really prepared to give up our independence and invest all we had in buying the apartment — in reality an entrance fee — and paying thousands of dollars a month for all the services provided. Once committed, it would be financially prohibitive to change plans, certainly after the first year.
My very private husband was also deterred by living in such close proximity with so many others, and was particularly put off by a large bulletin board displaying photos of new arrivals. Another concern was living solely with people of our own age group. And so we pushed the idea of moving to the back of our minds — that is, until a recent trying week spent with plumbers and electricians following the demise of our water heater and some other electrical problems. Perhaps the time had come to let someone else take care of the endless nitty-gritties of life. We arranged to visit another establishment.
This one seemed more relaxed and less formal than the first, and we got the impression the residents had a great deal of input into how it was run. The apartments we saw were spacious, with lots of light and wonderful views. There were also lovely terraced gardens — including one with individual plots for residents who wanted to grow their own flowers and vegetables, a dog park and a rooftop with a 360-degree view of San Francisco and the bay. While the apartments did not have full kitchens, communal kitchens were available and we were assured plans were afoot to put proper kitchens into some of the apartments.
Our guide led us around the dining room and the library — which included a special section of books written by residents — the gym, the rooms for games and meetings. People were doing puzzles, painting, exercising; a martini night was planned for that evening. Here, too, many services were provided, including a weekly mystery tour organized by the shuttle bus driver. But importantly for us, we got the sense that there was no pressure to participate in anything that didn’t beckon. And we heard a wonderful story about a couple in their 90s who had dated each other when very young, found each other again in the residence and rekindled their romance.
As we left the building, we commented that everyone looked old. But then, so do we — though perhaps less so than the 103-year-old who has lived there for more than 30 years.
We have not yet decided whether one of these fine places will be our future home, but the pros are definitely more numerous than the cons: lovely accommodations, every meal cooked and served, complete care with onsite medical staff, activities galore, lots of companionship for bridge, art and exercise classes, organized outings, cocktail parties and every service imaginable.
The cons are few and harder to define, but there are enough of them to allow us to continue to procrastinate. The costs are high. And we would miss the diversity that makes up our current neighborhood. But perhaps our main reservation is not quite acknowledging that we may not be able do everything for ourselves in the not so distant future.
As we consider and reconsider, we are justifying deferring any decision until we have explored a few more possible places to call