Change Of Life

4 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

When I was seven years old, my father announced one day that we were moving to California. My reaction and my brother’s were predictable. We went into a small panic at the prospect of going to a new school and having to make new friends. Our parents, just as predictably, assured us that it would turn out to be no big deal. Now the roles are reversed, in a way. My father, who’s 76, is wrestling with a decision about whether to move from the house in which he lived with my mother while she was alive into a continuing-care retirement community. And though I’d like to convince him that he’d easily make new friends and it would be no big deal, we both know that’s not true.

When my parents moved us to California, the most important factor in my life–my immediate family–remained constant. But my father’s move would have far greater significance. Entering such a place would signal the end of the normal, fully independent phase of life. It must be terribly hard to let that go. Yet at some point, he’ll presumably have to.

Right now my father is vigorous, and he has a rich life. He just bought a new lawn mower–and not a self-propelled one. He rakes his leaves and rides his bicycle. A retired physics professor at Princeton, he directs and teaches in a summer program at the university and serves on the boards of several nonprofit institutions.

Eventually, though, he may become disabled in some way. And at that point, he’ll need to live in a place not only where someone else rakes the leaves but also where someone takes physical care of him, perhaps around the clock. The choices then will be straightforward: he can enter a nursing home; he can move in with my family or my brother’s and hire nursing and household care (since we work full-time); or he can stay in his house and do the same.

Unlike many Americans, he can afford high-quality care in any of these settings. He has an excellent pension, and he saved his money. If he waits too long, though, he won’t be able to move into the continuing-care community where he has prudently reserved a space. Like many such facilities, this one requires that you be generally healthy to enter. Once you’re in, you can get “assisted living”–help with meals and baths and so forth–and then skilled nursing care, as you need these services. But you have to come in on your own two feet.

If my father waits and eventually has to go directly into nursing care, it will be harder to establish a new social circle in a place where all the residents are dealing with serious medical conditions. It will be even harder if he chooses private nursing care at his home, where he lives alone.

Moving into his continuing-care community now would give him a leg up on creating a new life. Not only is it a high-quality facility, but it’s also close to Princeton, where he has lived and worked for nearly 40 years. He’d be able to stay in close touch with friends and relatives, including my family and me. (My brother lives 300 miles away.)

These factors argue for making the move now. But what looks right on paper doesn’t necessarily feel right, and that’s my father’s dilemma. In the move to California, my brother and I had no choice in the matter–and now that the roles are reversed, we still don’t. My father is the only one who can make this tough decision. We and our wives can advise, but ultimately all we can do is love him and support his choice.

E-mail Michael at For more on assisted living and other elder-care topics, check our website at

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