Twilight strategies

Decisions: Aging couples develop methods for dealing with the inevitable, often painful, changes that come in the latter part of life.

October 10, 1999|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,Special to the Sun

Cornelious and Alice Pullen, both 70, say they're too busy living to plan for what the future might hold.

Robert and Jean Zoerheide moved to a retirement community long before their children and friends thought they should even be considering such a change.

Santiago and Ida Rain have found themselves in other circumstances. Married 58 years, the couple has been forced to live apart for the past two years -- and likely the rest of their days -- after Ida's failing health made it impossible for her husband to care for her.

Three couples. Three marriages. Three very different decisions about how to face the twilight of their lives together.

Experts say the best way for married couples to face the transitions that come with growing older is to develop a strategy for dealing with potential health problems and other issues while both spouses are still relatively healthy.

But few of us like to think about the bleak realities of aging. So people -- especially senior citizens -- often find themselves reacting to circumstances that alter their lives, rather than seeking to control them beforehand.

"It's human nature not to want to face the end of one's life," says Dr. Samuel C. Durso, medical director of Johns Hopkins geriatrics at the Putty Hill Health Center and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "And older people perceive these changes as tied to the final stages of one's life."

But according to Durso and others in the geriatric field, not having a strategy for dealing with aging can be even more detrimental. In most cases, aging couples do not make any decisions until one spouse is either incapacitated or dies.

At this crisis point, it's far more difficult to make choices rationally, much less adjust to living with them.

"When you've got each other, you're more likely to be able to make a [new] situation work. As a couple, you get through together. The problems really get more significant when people are alone. You don't have that other person for help, to brainstorm with or even to help out financially," explains Mark Meiners, associate director of the Center on Aging and the geriatric doctorate program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

And while a hefty retirement fund certainly helps, these experts say, it's not as central as some other things. "The most important thing I find are people who have some interested family around, regardless of what kind of means they have. It doesn't always have to be family. It can be friends who have become like family," Durso says.

Cornelious and Alice Pullen say they know they should be looking farther down life's road. Their children have broached the topic. And every once in a while, Alice wonders what they might do if one of them suffered some health calamity.

But after decades of hard work, the Pullens, who live in Arbutus, say it seems silly to weigh down their time together with talk about old age and even death.

The future "is the least thing on my mind," says Cornelious. "It's something I can't help. If I sit down and start planning, then I'll start to worry about it and it'll cross my mind more.

"Now, I just leave it in the hands of the Lord. I'm just living until it's my time to go,"he says with a smile.

Since Cornelious retired in 1992 -- and that was only because his brother became ill and could no longer help run the bus tour company the two men founded -- the Pullens have been savoring retirement.

They like to travel and often get in one of Cornelious' restored classic cars on a whim and drive to visit their daughter in Florida or relatives in North Carolina. Both are active members of New Antioch Baptist Church in Reisterstown, serving in a variety of ministries. And with four children, 13 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren -- most of whom live within an hour of their home -- the Pullens have an endless round of family obligations.

Except for flare-ups of a leg injury from a car accident Alice was in 14 years ago, they both remain in basically good health. The couple, who have been married for 51 years, have made their basic final wishes known to their children. They do have an attorney -- though they've yet to write wills.

They also have burial insurance and two plots reserved in the cemetery across the street from their home.

But they can't quite face talking about the years between. The couple expects to stay in their own home "until we can't stay anymore and then we'll make other plans," Alice says.

Facing a move together

Durso say married couples like the Zoerheides are something of an anomaly in retirement communities.

"It's very rare, in my experience, to see a couple [living] together in an assisted living facility or in a nursing home," he says. "It happens, but it's not common."

Robert Zoerheide knew that just by glancing around the dining room at Roland Park Place well before he and his wife, Jean, decided to move there. It was, and remains, overwhelmingly dominated by women.

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