It was a heartbreaking story out of Alberta, Canada that hit the headlines recently. Terry and Alma Bonnett, married 66 years, have been separated from one another because they need different levels of care. Alma, who is 89 years old, broke her hip last year and requires assistance in a long-term care (LTC) facility. Eighty-four-year-old Terry, on the other hand, needs only minor help with activities of daily living (ADLs), so he was left behind in the independent living apartment they used to share, several blocks away from Alma’s LTC facility.
“It’s hard on a person,” said Terry. “You’ve been together that many years and then you get ready for bed and you get lonesome. There’s nobody to talk to in the evening. You sit here like a bump on a log.”
Alberta Health Services, which operates the LTC facility, says it isn’t feasible for Terry to move in with Alma since rooms must be kept available for seniors with a true LTC need. And while Terry tries to visit Alma daily, the Canadian weather limits his safe mobility many days, leaving both seniors to pass the days alone.
It’s better together
While this scenario is not uncommon in the United States either, each story is uniquely painful to the loved ones who are impacted. Often, senior care facilities only have one level of care available–perhaps it just has independent living apartments, or maybe it only offers memory care or assisted living. Other facilities only offer single-occupancy rooms–the privacy may be nice, but there’s no bunking up with your spouse or partner in a single hospital-style bed.
What’s so bad about seniors living alone? A study conducted in 2013 by researchers at University College London found that for both men and women, the combination of loneliness and infrequent interaction with family and friends can cut a person’s life lifespan, independent of other health factors. In short, seniors really can die of loneliness when separated from a life-long love.
For some senior couples, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, also known as a life plan community) could be a solution to concerns about being separated. CCRCs offer a continuum of care for residents, from independent living patio homes or condos to 24/7 skilled nursing care–all on one campus. For aging couples, this can be an ideal option should one person need a higher level of care than the other. Though they may end up being housed in different units, the proximity is typically such that the more able-bodied spouse can easily visit their mate daily, sit with them, possibly eat with them.
If you are contemplating a CCRC, there are other aspects to consider–among them, financial feasibility–and it’s also important to understand the differing contract details of the communities you are exploring.
Moving before you must
For many people, this goal of remaining together throughout the Golden Years is a compelling reason to move to a CCRC while both seniors are still mobile and relatively healthy. Some CCRCs have a requirement that new residents be able to “walk in,” meaning they must both be able to live independently when they first move to the facility. This is one of the reasons why it is wise to plan to move to a CCRC sooner than later–you don’t want to risk having an unexpected health crisis that disqualifies you from entering the community.
A life-long partnership
When one spouse is still independent but the other has a mental or physical health concern that requires a move to a care facility, it can present logistical as well as emotional challenges. But a CCRC can alleviate some of these issues, allowing couples to remain near one another and simplifying the logistics of staying emotionally connected.
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