Joan’s Journey: How Aging Can Affect Family Dynamics

Welcome Joan’s Journeyers. Once upon a time, not very long ago, an elderly man and an elderly woman moved into to my senior living community, Holiday Villa East (HVE) in Santa Monica. Arthur and Gretchen, as I have named them, moved to HVE on the same week. They both had lost spouses and were in declining mental and physical health. Our protagonists quickly settled into life at HVE and all was well—or was it?

I have a tale to tell, a true tale told recently to me by Sam Rosenberg, executive director of HVE. The moral of Rosenberg’s story, which I agree with, is key to understanding the complex components to successful senior living when close to family.

Gretchen, 85, had a daughter Gloria, who was her closest relative and Rosenberg’s family contact. Arthur, also 85, had a son James. Likewise, James was his Dad’s family contact. Initially, both adult children routinely visited their parents.

As time went by, Gretchen and Arthur’s health diminished. On days when James visited, Arthur was foulmouthed, even downright nasty to his son. This behavior is a well-known symptom of some forms of dementia. Despite the outbursts, James faithfully visited his dad, each time arriving with personal items, favorite foods and small surprises. One afternoon while James visited, Arthur’s behavior was particularly offensive. An aide called Rosenberg to Arthur’s unit.

Rosenberg recalls asking James why he continued to visit his dad when his father was consistently rude and disrespectful. James answered simply, “Because he’s my Dad!” Arthur lived a long and comfortable life in harmony with his surroundings and son.

Gretchen’s story isn’t so pleasant. As time passed, Gretchen refused to dress stylishly, fix her hair or wear makeup. Her behavior was symptoms of her worsening physical and mental conditions. Gloria, on the other hand, arrived for visits bedecked for a red carpet event. Dismayed by her mother’s behavior, Gloria insisted that Gretchen improve her appearance. When the pleading and insistence, and then criticism failed to change her mother’s behavior, Gloria visited Rosenberg’s office. “This is my last visit,” she declared. Taken aback, Rosenberg asked why. Gloria answered simply, “Because she’s not my Mother anymore.”

Gloria said funds for her mother’s rent, personal care and physical needs would be sent monthly, but family would no longer visit. Rosenberg recalls sadly that Gretchen, a sweet and gentle woman whose face lit up when her family visited, never again saw her daughter, grandchildren or great grandchildren. The sparkle left Gretchen’s eyes and she died alone.

Joan’s Journeyers, why am I sharing Rosenberg’s tale?

In last month’s, Joan’s Journey post, Rosenberg and I referred to motivational psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory. The theory proposes five variable levels: 1) basic life needs of air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, and sleep; 2) security, order, law, limits, and stability; 3) family, affection, relationships, work and groups; 4) achievement, status, responsibility, and reputation; and 5) personal growth and fulfillment. Lower level needs must be met before fulfilling needs at a higher level.

In the upcoming Joan’s Journey, I will explore Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as it relates to the tale of Arthur, Gretchen and other seniors. In addition, I will consider the pros and cons of seniors moving to a senior living community close to their children. Until the next Joan’s Journey, enjoy the trip day by day.

Joan London is a freelance medical and social service writer who specializes in topics on aging. London moved from Maryland to California to enjoy life in a senior living community and enhance her quality of life by living closer to her children and grandchildren.

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