Adjusting To Life In A Retirement Home 'Not As Scary As I Thought'

Nov 21, 2017
Originally published on November 21, 2017 7:29 pm

When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who has already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

At 70 years old, Camille Miller was not excited about leaving her home. For 35 years, it had been her refuge.

"When you walk through the threshold, your blood pressure just drops," she says. "I almost start crying when I talk about it."

Camille had just finished a big renovation, and had finally gotten her dream kitchen. And after a time-intensive career at a Texas nonprofit, she'd been looking forward to the day when she could try out all the recipes she'd saved up over the years.

Then her husband Bill got sick.

He'd always been responsible for paying the taxes and taking care of the bills. Then the Millers' phone got shut off. Bill had forgotten to pay the telephone company. His memory problems were getting worse and he needed a scooter to get around. Camille had her hands full.

So the Millers found themselves making a difficult decision. They needed to move into senior housing — an apartment in a continuing care community in Austin, Texas.

Morris Gordon made the move seven months ago, shortly after his wife died.

Morris is 86. His kids live far from his home in Minneapolis, and they insisted he couldn't live alone anymore. Like Camille, Morris was uneasy about the change.

"I thought that being in a nursing home was a place where you sat all day and clapped your hands to 'Ring Around the Rosie' or other childhood things," he says. "I didn't see myself sitting in there and waiting for the day to die."

But he tells Camille that he's now happier in his new digs.

"Nobody was able to tell me the outcome of my move," he says. "But I'm so happy that things seem to be turning out in ways that I can accept and feel comfortable with."

This has been lightly edited for clarity.


Advice from Morris Gordon

On integrating into the community

The biggest help I think, is I'm part of the meal program. We have five dinners a week that they cook. It's pretty communal. And the people that I was eating with became friends. I found out that instead of being timid, because I was afraid they wouldn't approve of me or whatever it was, I discovered over time that they were a very interesting group and very hospitable, gentle and welcoming and warm-hearted people, and day by day the relationships kind of thickened and, if you compare it to cooking, made a good soup with a good flavor and the right temperature.

On what he's had to give up

I had hoped to invest more time in travel in my old age — and that doesn't look like it's on the horizon. But you know something? It's not something that I lament. There's other stuff around beside the traveling. I'm traveling whilst remaining at the same place with my new experiences that I have here at the home.

On the best part of the move

It's not as scary as I thought it would be. I've learned to put up with old age, I enjoy being with the new people, the things I was afraid of, it was just a story I told myself which didn't correspond to real life.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At 70 years old, Camille Miller was not excited about leaving her home in Austin, Texas. She and her husband had just finished renovations to get it ready for her upcoming retirement.

CAMILLE MILLER: The house has been our refuge. When you walk through the threshold of that house, your blood pressure level just drops. And it's just wonderful.

SHAPIRO: Camille had a brand new kitchen and a collection of recipes saved up for the afternoons that she would finally have free. Then her husband's health started to decline, and the Millers had to make a difficult decision. They moved into senior housing, an apartment in a continuing care community. That meant leaving their house behind.

MILLER: We were 35 years and have raised our one daughter in that house. And so I almost start crying when I talk about it.

MORRIS GORDON: (Laughter) Yeah, well, let it happen is all I can say. Don't hold back the tears.

SHAPIRO: That other voice is Morris Gordon. He's 86. He moved into a retirement community in Minneapolis about seven months ago at the insistence of his kids. Morris talked with Camille for our series "Been There" to give her some advice about adjusting to the move. He told Camille that at first he was uneasy about the change just as she is now.

GORDON: Here's what happened in my life. My wife, to whom I had been married for over 50 years, died after a two-year suffering through pancreatic cancer. And I was a fair number of years older than she was. So I was supposed to go ahead of her. The apple cart got tipped over when she passed away. So I have acquired some impairments along the way, but I did not think that I had to leave the house. And I thought that being in a nursing home was a place where you sat all day and clapped your hands to "Ring Around The Rosie" or other childhood things. And I didn't see myself sitting in there and waiting for the day to die.

MILLER: Morris, I really identify with your description of the process. My dad told me that if he ever needed to go into a nursing home to just shoot him.

GORDON: (Laughter).

MILLER: But I planned to live another 20, 30 years. I'm just 70. So we just moved in a week ago, and it has been a nightmare (laughter).

GORDON: OK.

MILLER: Our bed that was ordered - didn't come in until yesterday. So we've been sleeping on the couch - don't have my pictures up yet. All these kind of things just drive you nuts. So Morris, you know, when you move to this new place, how did you begin to figure out what your new life is going to be like?

GORDON: The biggest help, I think, is - I'm part of the meal program. In other words, we have five dinners a week that they cook. It's pretty communal. There are eight of us at the table, sometimes 10. And the people that I was eating with became friends. I found out that instead of being timid because I was afraid they would either not approve of me or whatever it was - but I've discovered over time that they were a very interesting group and very hospitable, gentle and welcoming and warm-hearted people. And day by day, the relationships kind of thickened - and, you know, if you compare it to cooking - made a good soup with a good flavor and the right temperature.

The other things that happened is that I retained a number of my attachments near my home. So I was continuing those relationships, so I didn't have to give up anything cold turkey.

MILLER: Well, Morris, like you, I really love my neighbors. I do go over every week and spend as much time over there as I can. We're fortunate enough to be able to keep the house. And at this point, I had just - have nothing but just wonderful memories in that house. And it's a huge adjustment.

GORDON: Yeah, it's quite a change, and we still own the house that we always lived then. So yesterday I was there. And I feel a lot better at the nursing home. I call it nursing home. I'm not supposed to - at my new place than I do at the old house. I discovered it's still full of spirits so to speak, you know, associations and so on and experiences. So I'm happier and more stimulated at the new place.

MILLER: What do you think is the worst thing? What's the worst thing about this?

GORDON: I had hoped to invest more time and travel in my old age. And that doesn't look like it's on the horizon. But you know something? It's not something that I lament. There's other stuff around besides the traveling - traveling while remaining at the same place with my new experiences that I have here at the home.

MILLER: That's very helpful, Morris. Hearing your experience gives me something to think about. And what about the best thing that's happened as a result of you being in this stage in your life?

GORDON: Well, that it's not as scary as I thought it would be - I've learned to put up with old age. I enjoy being with the new people. The things that I was afraid of - it was just something that I was making a story that I told myself which doesn't correspond to real life. I think that nobody was able to tell me the outcome of my move. But I'm so happy that things seem to be turning out in ways that I can accept and feel comfortable with.

SHAPIRO: That was Morris Gordon talking with Camille Miller about what to expect as she begins life in a senior living community. They got together for our series Been There. If you're at the beginning of a big change in your life, email nprcrowdsource@npr.org and put Been There in the subject line. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.