Transition Tales: Reflections of an Independent Woman Adjusting to Assisted Living

By Jo Alexander Wardwick, Guest Writer

When I first awoke one morning, I looked around the still unfamiliar room and said to myself, “OK, I’m ready to go home now.” But then the unwelcome thought struck me. “I am home—and probably for the rest of my life. What have I done?” I moaned to myself.

The week before, at the age of 82, I had left my beautiful home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and moved to an assisted living facility in Jacksonville. I had wrestled with the decision to move, but deep inside knew what the right choice was. I had had the misfortune to fall twice. I had not been injured; nevertheless, my son, Mark, and his wife, Beverly, had made the 45 minute drive to Ponte Vedra to check on me each time. Both Mark and Beverly had encouraged me to make the move.

“Mom,” said Mark, with gentle persuasion, “Now, you will be just five minutes away. We’ll see each other more often; you will discover new friends and activities; you will not have to prepare your own meals anymore; you’ll be closer to your church and your church friends and can attend the services more often.” And then the clincher: “You can take Teddy.” Teddy is a small black and white Havanese dog I’ve had since he was a puppy, and
I knew it might be difficult to find a condo or apartment that would allow pets. Being able to bring Teddy with me was a big deal.

“All true,” I finally agreed. “It is the right thing to do.” A mother doesn’t like for her children to worry about her.

The next few weeks went by in a whirl as Beverly and I sorted, prioritized, and packed up my things. And then, I made the move from my beautiful, spacious home to a very small two- room apartment in an assisted living facility two miles from my son’s house.

My first adjustment has been the difficulty in downsizing from a large, comfortable home to
a small apartment. It can feel confining. Many
of the things I treasure—several of my pretty art objects, photographs, paintings, crystal, china, even reference books and other household items—had to be put in storage. Yes, I know that things are not the truly important parts
of our lives, but having our familiar and lovely belongings around us, with their accompanying memories, can ease the transition to old age and growing dependence, and I miss the comfort my treasured belongings provided me.

Over the weeks, I quickly learned just what “assisted living” entails. For one, the staff members all have a key to my front door.

“For the safety of the resident,” I was told. “If you should fall or faint or become ill, you might not be able to open your door yourself.”

I appreciate the reasons; nevertheless, I regret any loss of independence, and it took a bit of time to accept the idea that a staff member having the freedom to enter my apartment, day or night, if it is deemed necessary. I also have come to realize that becoming physical dependent on others is now part of my life’s journey.

The transition from independence to dependence has also been exacerbated by the scheduled days, and meal times are no exception. I no longer am able to breakfast late and skip lunch for an afternoon snack and then a generous dinner of my own choosing and time, sometimes accompanied by a glass of wine or cocktail.

I feel the loss of independence in other ways. I was used to popping into my car and making quick trips to the grocery store or cleaners or to meet a friend for dinner. And while I am still able to drive, the reluctance to drive at night or on a rainy day has been a reminder of the aging eyesight and reflexes. I have had to face the fact that there are days when it is in my best interest to simply wait for the facility’s bus to take me to the shopping center at scheduled times during the week. I can recall a younger me at the grocery store observing the residents from a nearby retirement home disembark from their living facility’s shuttlebus, many pushing walkers or leaning on canes, to do their shopping. At the time, I was grateful not to have been among that group of slow-moving shoppers, but, as though touched by a fairy godmother’s wand, I am startled to now find myself among those very same shuffling shoppers. I am the one who moves cautiously around cereal box displays and pyramids of tomato cans and struggles not to drop the apples as I inspect and choose.

The transition to elderly shopper, though, has its advantages. Quite often I am offered help in reaching a high shelf, and I have noticed that frequently other shoppers move aside to make room for me and my wobbling cart—or to give me a wide berth so that I have an obviously needed clear path!

There are other advantages to becoming one of the elderly—that is, in addition to a discounted price offered at most places. Firemen come to see us and bring pizza. Policemen like to visit and bring ice cream. On Fridays, there is usually some kind of concert scheduled—a children’s church choir perhaps, a school musical group, a local magician or flautist or banjo player. The performers are always welcomed and appreciated, and I have recalled many times over the years when I escorted our own church children’s choir to different retirement homes around town. It has certainly been a major adjustment for me to be on the other side of that coin!

The transition from youthful activities, limber joints, sharp memory and eyes is not an easy one; yet the recollections of a lifetime of memories, the love received from children, grandchildren, and friends, and the many kindnesses bestowed on those of us who move more slowly these days all surround me like a warm blanket. Concentrating on these blessings can divert one’s mind from bemoaning the loss of youthful energy.

I do not like having to rely on others throughout my day, and that is the greatest adjustment of all: the transition from independent to dependent. The dependence, however, is primarily physical; mentally, I am still my own person. And the state of one’s mind is the result of one’s own making. I can view the present state of my life with the peace of mind that I have made a wise decision, or I can spend the rest of my days discontented and miserable. I have decided on acceptance, on a calmness of mind that is close, very close to happy. There will be more adjustments to come, for an interesting life is composed of changes and growth and transitions from one phase of life to another. In the meantime, I can sit back and relax after a trip to the shopping center or after playing a game of Bridge with my friends or watching a film with other residents on Movie Night. And Teddy’s always there to jump into my lap for a cuddle. He’s such a good little dog. Ah-h-h. It’s good to behome.

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