If you ask people what’s important to them as they age, they will almost always mention staying in control of their life and making their own decisions, with independence and choice being dearly held values at any age. Recently, I had the chance to chat with someone who is ensuring that she ages with choice and independence, and I think her story has great lessons for many of us.
Mary* is an 81-year-old woman who has lived alone since her husband died fifteen years ago. About three years after his death, Mary sold the home they had raised their children in and moved into a condo so she would have less maintenance and responsibility. She travelled quite a bit with friends, and spent a lot of time visiting her children and grandchildren. One of her daughters lives in Vancouver, her son in Calgary, and her other daughter lives near her in Ottawa.
Mary is a very independent woman who has a lot of interests and friends. When Mary and I talked, she told me that she had made the decision to move into a retirement residence. I asked her what prompted a move, since she was already living in a low-maintenance condo. She related to me the story of how she took care of her parents as they aged and learned a lot from their experience. Her parents stayed in the home they had lived in their whole lives. Their worlds became smaller and smaller as their friends either moved or passed away. In the last couple of years, they had health problems that made it hard for them to get out of the house. This meant Mary and her brother were their main social contacts and their primary caregivers. She told me she didn’t want to do that to her children—to be dependent on them for her social contact or her care. And she said she didn’t want her world to get smaller as she got older.
I then asked her why she was moving now, when she was clearly still very healthy and mobile. She told me that was exactly why she was moving now: she wanted to make the move when it was her choice and when she could create a rich and full life, meet people, and take part in activities. She told me about a woman in her building who didn’t sell her condo until she was 94 years old. She moved into a beautiful retirement residence that had a lot of activities available, excellent meals, and people living there who were interesting and fun. The problem was, her friend waited so long she couldn’t really participate in much of what was available. When Mary visited her, she shared with her that she wished she had moved there a decade earlier. Mary told me she decided then and there she wasn’t going to make that same mistake.
After that visit, Mary said she spent some time thinking about what type of lifestyle was important to her as she aged, and then explored several retirement residences to find the best fit. She didn’t just take a tour, she asked to participate in a couple of activities so she could meet some of the other residents. And, of course, she ate a couple of meals there. She then called each of her children and shared her decision.
When I asked her how she was feeling about the move, she said, “I’m excited. I think this will be a pretty easy transition for me. For the foreseeable future, I’ll still be able to do many of the activities I’m doing now, and I’ll be able to try new things and meet new people. I see this as the start of the next chapter of my life. Best of all, it’s my decision.”
Mary did naturally what I suggest people do to stay in control of their lives: she thought about what kind of life she wants as she ages, then explored options and made a plan that would help her create that life, also talking to the people she loved about her decision. Being proactive is the best way I know to ensure we have the choice and control we all want as we age.
*Name has been 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.