A Senior Challenge

As our parents grow older, their needs multiply. For many baby-boomers, providing that help is increasingly difficult, and some wonder who will care for them

September 30, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,sun reporter

We are in so much trouble, boomers.

I know, I can hear the Gen-XYZs saying, "Please, not another baby boomer whining about getting older." Well, bear with me here. Our pain might be your pain one day.

I've just come back from visiting my mom. She lives in a large, Baltimore-area retirement community. She'll turn 95 this fall, but she still steams through the halls behind her walker as if the place were on fire. She calls it "playing golf," and walks the "links" at least three times a day.

But she is struggling with vascular dementia (hardly anybody hits 90 without slipping a cog), which is why we had to move her earlier this year from her "independent living" apartment to assisted living, and very soon after that to the community's nursing home.

It's beautiful, really. Clean. Cheerful. It doesn't smell the way many nursing homes do. She was able to bring along a few pieces of her own furniture. She gets dressed every morning, eats well and takes part in a few of the activities the place organizes for the residents. They make sure she gets her medicine on time, and keep her safe and well-scrubbed.

When she complains about this or that, I tell her, "You're very lucky to have such a beautiful place to live, and a whole staff of people to look after you. It could be lots worse."

She's also very lucky that, when her bill leapt from $1,500 a month in independent living, to $8,000 a month in the nursing home, she was able to pay. For now.

Even with long-term care insurance, she will all-too-quickly burn through her life savings, apply for Medicaid, and become the taxpayers' burden.

You'd like my mom. She's the most upbeat and enthusiastic person I've ever known. A few years back, when my wife and I told her we were planning a trip to Italy to visit my grandfather's birthplace, she said, "Let's go!" So, we took her along. She was 88. She's no complainer. She'd rather do something to make it better.

So when she tells me now that she waits "forever" for an aide to come to help her dress, or put on her hearing aid, or bring her lunch, I pay attention. But I can see the staff is working hard. Most residents on the floor have needs much greater and more urgent than Mom's. I tell her she needs to be patient.

As I walk through the halls on my visits, I can't help but notice the staff is small, with a great deal of work to do and little time to stop and chat with residents like my mom, who is hungry for conversation and has plenty of stories to tell -- the old ones she still remembers.

It is not pleasant work, to my eyes. Residents have accidents, and they have to be cleaned up. Some get agitated. Many are fragile, blind and forget where they are. And they're frightened. They cry out and wait to be comforted. Call bells ding. And ding. And ding.

By comparison, Mom's needs are minor, and easily postponed. While she charges down the hallway with her walker, 10 or 15 other residents -- nearly all of them women -- idle in their wheelchairs near the nurses' station.

They're parked where the staff can more efficiently watch them, give them their pills and take their blood pressure. They doze, some flopped over in their chairs. Sometimes they speak to each other, but more often it's to no one in particular. The TV drones in the corner but nobody seems to be watching.

You think this won't be you, boomers? You figure you'll check out before it comes to this?

Mom thought so, too. She and my step-dad promised they'd go together. But when he died in 2000, she soldiered on. She swore she'd swallow a "purple pill" and depart gracefully before she lost her marbles. She once asked me, only half in jest, if a leap from her fourth-floor apartment would be enough, or should she make friends with someone on the sixth.

When her health and her dementia began to worsen last winter, she sensed she was losing control of her fate. We talked about it. She told me, "You can talk about getting out before things get too unpleasant. But when you're looking at the end, staring it in the face, it's not so easy to give it up."

Which brings me, finally, to my point here: Unless we are hit by a massive coronary, or a bus, most of us boomers, eventually, are going to need long-term care. And, as with everything else we've done since the `50s, our numbers will put enormous demand on the system and its employees. Think your kids will take you in?

My mom's experience -- in one of the best nursing facilities in Maryland -- tells me there are already too few people willing to do the work at a quality and a price we -- or society -- can afford.

Who will look after us, and keep life bearable, when we start checking into the nursing homes?

I can hear at least one answer in the voices of some of the people who care for my mom -- accents, some clearly from the Caribbean, some from South Asia, but others I can't quite place, too.

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