Women and Health

Accepting Change

Sylvia Zeidner, still making friends after 80 years.
Sylvia Zeidner, still making friends after 80 years. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Rita Zeidner
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In the dark, Oscar-nominated film "The Savages," Wendy Savage cries out, "We're horrible, horrible people," as she and her older brother, Jon, consider to which of Buffalo's dreary nursing homes to commit their octogenarian father.

It doesn't matter that dear ol' dad had been abusive and long-estranged from his family. The idea of turning him over to a nursing home seemed cruel.

Fortunately, my family has little in common with the Savages.

For starters, we are extremely close-knit. My sister Nancy and I live nearby, and our parents have always been a major part of our lives. My brother Bob visits frequently from his home in Los Angeles.

And happily, both Mom and Dad still have their marbles. So the decision last year to give up their home and move to a retirement community in the far reaches of Montgomery County was strictly their own.

Still, I closely identified with Wendy Savage and her uncomfortable mix of worry, guilt and selfishness.

Never mind that the continuing care facility my parents chose is considered a model for seniors. Joining them for dinner in their communal dining hall for the first time, surrounded by frail and abandoned-looking strangers, I wondered if I should have done more to help my parents age in place. (The fact that I was off skiing in Montana the week they traded spaces compounded my guilt.)

Had I been complicit in a decision that simplified my own life but would rip theirs apart?

And would my mother's spirit be broken by some Nurse Ratched type?

The first signs weren't good.

Shortly after moving in, Mom did receive a finger-wagging from a supercilious administrator who needlessly reprimanded her for breaking some rule.

But I needn't have worried about my mother caving. Not only did she set the record straight and extract an apology; she persuaded management to quit insulting residents by sending them patronizing tipsheets on how to be a good neighbor.

I came to terms with my parents' choice about four months after the move, on my mother's 80th birthday.

To celebrate the occasion, and to proudly show off her new home to those who hadn't yet visited, she threw herself a party. Her 50 or so guests included several close, lifelong friends.

But also on the guest list were new friends she had made on campus. During a difficult time, they had welcomed her into their lives, and she in turn welcomed them into hers.

Until then I had worried that, by moving, my parents had closed a chapter on a full and satisfying life.

They had. But they had also started a new one.

Rita Zeidner is a frequent contributor to the Health section. Comments:health@washpost.com.

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