When I meet with my clients I always encourage them to think about how they will maintain choice, control and independence as they age—key aspects of life I believe all of us want to preserve. In order to do that, I suggest we ask ourselves this question: If there were a change in my health or mobility, what would I do differently? When answering this, we need to consider where we might live, how we might manage the tasks associated with living and caring for ourselves, what type of transportation we might use if we are currently dependent on driving, and with whom and how we would spend our time.
Meet my Uncle Jack
Recently, I posed this important question to my Uncle Jack.* Uncle Jack is 93 years old and still working part-time (amazing, right?). He lives in the condo that he and his wife shared before she passed about eight years ago, and for several years his sister-in-law has been strongly encouraging him to move into a retirement residence because he doesn’t know anyone in his building and doesn’t have a lot of social contact outside of work. He is a warm and gregarious man and she recognizes he is a bit lonely.
Uncle Jack went to look at retirement residences recently and found one he liked a lot. He agreed it would be a wonderful place for him to live. He liked the food, thought it was very attractive and enjoyed the people he met. When I asked him when he was planning to move, he told me what countless people have said to me over the years: “Someday I’ll move there, but I’m not ready yet.”
I wanted to understand why Uncle Jack felt he wasn’t ready, and asked him what he thought would trigger him to know when the time was right to move. He paused, thought for a moment and said, “When I can no longer drive, because I’ll become isolated where I am now and I don’t want that.” I then asked him if he had checked to see if the retirement residence he was interested in had a waiting list, as I didn’t want him to find out too late that there was no space when he was ready to move there!
Common triggers for a move
Let’s talk about triggers. No longer wanting or being able to drive is a common trigger for a move, as is the death of a spouse. Another trigger is health or mobility issues that interfere with someone’s ability to easily manage day-to-day chores or the maintenance of their home.
Here’s an example: A delightful older man I came to know was experiencing increasing health challenges, as was his wife. Their declining health ended up becoming their trigger for a change in their living situation. When they finally moved into a retirement residence, he told me that they felt like they had gotten their independence back. Instead of spending their time and energy doing daily household chores, they were spending time with their friends, as well as meeting new people. He said they felt they had more freedom than ever, now that they could just focus on the things they wanted to do, rather than the things they needed to do. It’s important to note that he also expressed that he wished they hadn’t waited for their health to decline to the degree it had for them to decide to move, as he believed they would’ve been able to enjoy the activities, outings and other recreational programming more when they were in better shape.
The goal: maintaining independence
Many people associate independence with living in their own home—the one they may have been in for decades. Yet, if we look up the definition of independence, it is much broader and doesn’t address where we live. The definition reads “Freedom from outside authority,” and “Capable of thinking or acting for oneself.” In order to have choice, control, and independence as we age, we need to ask ourselves what we would do in the face of changes in our health or mobility—and then we need to identify the triggers that would signal to us it is time to implement these changes. That is how we stay in control of our lives.
Ignoring these questions puts our independence at risk, as it may mean someone else making choices for us in the face of significant health or mobility changes. The good news is we can exercise our independence and have more of the life we want; we just need to be aware when it’s time to make a change for the betterment of our lives and take action!
*Name changed to protect privacy.
Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.