1. Wilma's (not her real name) husband died almost a decade ago, which is typical among married couples, as men do not live as long as women do, and men generally marry younger women. Wilma lived alone in the house she and her husband bought here, as she felt no reason to move away. After all, she had the Bridge Club, the Garden Club, and all her friends here, and it made sense to stay and keep active in her social circle.Of course, it got harder and harder as she got older. The 4 bedroom, 2-bath house was a lot of work to keep clean and tidy. And it needed work and updating as time went on - things she could not afford to do.But her mind started to go South. She slipped a cog in the gears, and things started to make less and less sense. One day, she inadvertently locked herself out of the house. Stuck in the garage, she had no way to get back inside.Now this is where it gets weird - and sad. Convinced that if she went for help to a neighbor, she would be viewed as crazy or demented, and that her children or the County would have her sent to a "home". So instead, she lived in her car for a few days, eating some crackers and other food she found in the glove box.A few days later, feeling faint, she went to the drugstore and asked the pharmacist for a loan of a few dollars so "she could get something to eat." Sensing trouble, the pharmacist asked a few pointed questions and parsed out what was going on. He called her children, as well as a locksmith, and she was able to get back into the house.Of course, it was clear to everyone that she should not be living there alone at this point, and they found an assisted living center off the island. Her fears were realized, oddly enough. If she had just called a locksmith, it would not have been a problem. But when your mind starts to go, the world is a scary place.Sadly, we no longer have a pharmacy, and the pharmacist has passed away. Back then, there was an informal network of people who tried to "look out" for older folks. But sadly, this network is not really very strong, and as more and more people get older and pass away, it sort of is falling apart.
Her story also illustrates the irrational fear that older people have of going to an assisted living, retirement home, retirement community or anything that smacks of being "institutionalized." Living in your garage is a whole lot worse!
2. Cindy had a history of mental health issues. Her husband had physical health issues, and they both liked to drink and smoke - a lot. Over the years they spent a lot of money - not on any one thing, but just living larger than they maybe they should have, eating out a lot and the like. They started to run out of money as a result of their spending and also as a result of a lot of irrational decisions.
During her frequent "fugue" states, she would buy things like cars or other appliances, on eBay, sometimes as gifts for others - although she could hardly afford to do so. This ran up a lot of debt.
Her husband died one day. He was exhausted and had lung problems. And her mental health issues took their toll on him. She was now living alone.
A young family approached her and befriended her, which she liked, as her erratic behavior had driven away a lot of other people. Within a month, these gypsies had moved in, and stuff started to disappear from the house.
Alarmed, Cindy called the Police, and was in a frantic fugue state when they arrived (the new "roommates" of course had persuaded her to stop taking her medications). The Police did nothing, convinced that Cindy was imagining things. She was taken away to a mental hospital - more than once - leaving her "friends" in charge of the house. Not only did they sell off more of her possessions (and drive her cars) they also were dealing drugs out of her home.
Cindy finally died - mentally ill people often don't live very long. It took nearly a month for her children to evict the gypsies living in her house, and after they left, the place was in a shambles.
I felt bad for Cindy - and was horrified as well. What a way to end your life, alone, with dangerous strangers living in your home stealing all your stuff, with everyone thinking you're crazy. How sad.
3. Martha also lost her husband (that sort of thing is common here!) and was having trouble getting around. She was losing her sight and also getting confused. She was pretty well off, and could afford to buy a new car every few years. Sadly, she tried to put diesel fuel in her new car, even though it burned gas. Fortunately a young man stopped her and showed her where the correct pump was. Mark is a nice guy.
But her driving became more and more erratic. And on an island where you have to drive to get to anything, not having a car and a license simply wasn't an option. So she drove - badly. Often going less than 20 mph even in a 35 mph zone, she would tend to lock on the brakes and stop dead in the road if she saw another car coming. Sometimes she would drive off the road. She would get lost. She pulled out in front of cars, often leading to near-miss situations and screeching brakes.
Her children wanted her to move near their home, so they could take care of her. But she refused. After wrecking her car and getting numerous tickets, she lost her license (due to the eye exam now required for anyone over 70).
Her solution? Get a golf cart. Sounded like a great idea, but driving a flimsy fiberglass vehicle on the streets (as it is legal to do here) with speeding rednecks in huge pickup trucks is probably a very, very bad idea.
Her solution to that was to drive on the sidewalk or at least the bike path, which is not legal here (this ain't The Villages, folks!). And today, she nearly wrecked the golf cart when she dodged out into traffic without looking or stopping. Thankfully, the hamster has really good brakes. We did leave a 20-foot skid mark, though.
The problem is, she is making poor decisions at a time in her life that her decision-making skills perhaps are not the best. She will end up in a wreck in that golf cart, eventually, and it will not be pretty, I assure you. A 5,000 lb pickup truck versus a 500 lb golf cart will be a bloody and likely fatal wreck. I also predict that if not her, someone will be in a bloody golf cart wreck here on the island, very soon. I just hope I'm not involved in it, as I nearly was today.
So how do we avoid these scenarios? Again, like with my Jamaican Lottery Scam posting, I am not sure there is an easy answer. But one thing is clear to me, the best time to make these decisions is before they are necessary. By the time you are trying to figure stuff like this out, your decision-making skills are impaired, or your options may be limited.
Seniors don't want to give up on their homes - often clinging to them and ending up living in their own squalor. They don't want to be seen as "giving up" by their peers. If you leave the island, people believe you've surrendered to old age (and death) and no one will talk to you again. But eventually, most do just that, under circumstances that are messy, unpleasant, and painful - often for everyone involved.
Mark's Grandmother sold her house in Florida and moved to Shell Point, a retirement community, where she had an apartment and lived independently. Indeed, you could have a house there, play golf all day, or keep your yacht tied up. It is hardly the County rest home.
Many relatives said she went "too early" as she was only a little over 70. But the apartment allowed her more freedom to do things rather than own things and she was able to travel and enjoy life, rather than clean rooms and worry about leaking roofs. When driving became too much of a chore, she used the provided shuttle bus to go into town to shop or whatever.
And when the time came - as it will for all of us - a decade later, she was able to transition to an on-site extended care apartment, which provided meals (which is important, as many elderly stop eating because they forget or they just go crazy) and some supervision. And a decade after that, she was able to transition to a full-care nursing home type environment - all on-site, all pre-arranged, with no intervention required by her family and not even much on her part. It was a pretty good arrangement.
For me, seeing this all go down here on the island, it leaves me with questions as to how I want to proceed. I do not have children to intervene in my life (and why should they have to, if I had them? Shouldn't people take care of themselves - as Mark's Grandmother did - as part of the Unwritten Social Contract?). So the idea of slowly losing my health, my eyesight, my hearing (whoops, too late) and my sanity, while wallowing around in a big house with a big lawn, just doesn't appeal to me. It would be a sad way to end my life or to spend my remaining years.
Of course, we haven't found the answer just yet. And it is a hard answer to find. Many "retirement communities" are very expensive and unaffordable, even for middle-class and upper middle-class people. And even "retirement communities" like The Villages are not really set up for long-term care needs. And that is a shame, too.
It seems the decision of where you want to end up and how you end up is often left to fate, or the hands of others, or whatever expedient option is available at the time things go horribly wrong. Getting old, as they say, is no fun - but better than the alternative. But I don't think that means that it isn't possible to plan some sort of exit strategy to optimize your comfort and your outcome.
Living in denial of old age and eventual death, on the other hand, is probably the worst possible strategy that anyone could come up with. Sadly, it seems to be the most popular one.