Commentary: My Days As A Whippersnapper In A Retirement Home

`So let's see if I have this right," said my friend Walt over the phone. "You went to Georgia to put your great-uncle in a retirement home, and now you're living there?" Yes, at age 39, I was living in Jefferson Place, a retirement home--or "senior house" as it's called locally--in Thomasville, Ga., a small town 13 miles from the Florida line, population 17,800. People assume it must have been a miserable experience. It was comical perhaps, but not miserable. I got a look at elder care that few people my age get. And I discovered that all of the guilt and consternation I experienced at the prospect of sending my uncle to a "home" was misplaced.

Not only was living at Jefferson Place tolerable but over the few months I was there, I saw some people blossom. And many saw an improvement in their quality of life--though they would never admit it to their families. Not that I recommend bundling every elderly relative off to a facility. As certainly as there are good ones, there are facilities to avoid. And it's not easy on elders set in their ways, who understandably don't want to be told what to do so late in life, especially if someone whose diapers they changed is telling them they must leave a cherished home. But I learned that living in a seniors' facility can provide companionship and emotional nourishment that can be so vital.

In this case, my uncle, 96-year-old Joe Rosolio, couldn't take care of himself. He wasn't paying bills, feeding himself, or bathing regularly. As his only descendant, I looked at Jefferson Place, as well as another similar elder-care facility in town. I initially dismissed both because I felt guilty sending him to a home. Instead, I got him to hire full-time help, only to see him fire each of them in an angry outburst. I tried living with him myself, but he was more than I could handle. Arguments ensued. When he took to carrying a loaded gun to greet imaginary midnight visitors, it became clear I needed to clear out.

I moved into Jefferson Place, three blocks from my uncle's house. A renovated hotel, it was getting a sprucing-up and expansion. I had my own room, one of 70 in the building. Because my room was awaiting renovation, I paid only $300 a month. Elderly residents with rehabbed rooms were paying $775 to $1,900. I expected the worst--a warehouse for the vegetative and the dying. Instead, I found a social bustle. At the lounge in the lobby, residents often gathered to talk, take exercise classes, or congregate for field trips. The ladies asked me daily when my uncle was coming, assuring me he would like the place. The booming romantic scene was short of men. My uncle, who fancied himself a lady-killer, would have been in demand. He might have found love, or at least companionship, late in life.

BIG MUTT. I also saw a community of people who understood one another in ways younger people can't. They would talk about shared experiences of long ago and commiserate about each other's complaints. Since the residents were Southerners aged 65 to 97 and I was a Yankee whippersnapper, we didn't have much to gab about. Nevertheless, we did find some common ground, like my 100-pound mutt, Ace, who lived with me there.

In the end, my uncle's care was given to a court-appointed guardian, who had powers I didn't. He was able to hire around-the-clock help that my uncle couldn't fire. They were with him until he died in March, 1998. It is impossible to know if having my uncle isolated in his beloved home was better for him than sending him into the warm society of a strange place. Had I insisted that this fiercely independent man move, he might never have forgiven me. However, in taking up residence at Jefferson Place, I gained a deeper understanding of the needs of older folks that will last me a lifetime.

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