'Mom's Good Move'

Five years ago, independent producer Dan Collison chronicled his mother's move into a retirement home in California. Now, Collison updates his 84-year-old mother's story as she faces another move to a section of a retirement community where she'll receive more assistance.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Many of us spend the first half of our lives striving for freedom and independence. Early on, it's developmental; later, it's about freedom from Mom and Dad; as adults, we aim for financial freedom. Then late in life, the process starts to reverse. We become more dependent for medical care, for transportation, and that can be frustrating. Independent producer Dan Collison has been tracking that late-life process through the experiences of his mother, Peg. His series is called Mom's Good Move. Five years ago we aired three stories about Peg Collison as she moved from her longtime home to a retirement facility in California. Recently Dan Collison visited his mother to help with another move.

DAN COLLISON reporting:

I figured I'd surprise Mom, so I got off the plane and went and picked up a bunch of flowers.

Hello. I'm here to see Peg Collison, Margaret(ph).

But the surprise was on me.

Hi there.

Ms. PEG COLLISON (Dan's Mother): Well, there you are.

COLLISON: What are you doing on the floor?

Ms. COLLISON: I'm sorry.

COLLISON: As I walked into her room, she was sitting on the floor in the middle of a doorway. Her legs were out in front of her, and she was supporting herself with her elbows, sort of like she was waiting for the band to start playing at an outdoor concert.

Unidentified Woman #1: Are you in any pain?

Ms. COLLISON: Well, I was in pain before, you know. This is the bad knee.

COLLISON: A whole team of nurses crowded around her.

Unidentified Woman #2: What happened? How'd you fall?

COLLISON: She didn't seem to be hurt. She was pretty confused about things. Her wheelchair and her walker were both about 10 feet from her, meaning that she must have scooted somehow on her behind across the floor for some distance.

Unidentified Woman #3: Were you walking without the walker?

Ms. COLLISON: Yeah, I remember the--something going forward, and I remember letting out a yell, but nobody seemed to hear me.

COLLISON: It had been about six months since I'd seen Mom, and I knew she'd been having more and more problems, but I have to admit I don't think I was quite prepared for this.

Unidentified Man #1: We had another little accident.

COLLISON: I was so shaken up, I dropped the flower vase that I was putting her flowers into and it shattered all over the room. Hundreds of pieces scattered about.

Unidentified Man #2: The Collison family is wreaking havoc.

Unidentified Woman #4: Let me see who I can get to clean that up.

COLLISON: You wonder why I brought this microphone?

Ms. COLLISON: Well, you brought it so I could talk into it.

COLLISON: Mom's an old pro at talking into a tape recorder. She documented her move with her partner Chaz in the spring of 2000, from her home where she lived for more than 30 years in San Mateo, California, to the University Retirement Community in Davis, California, near Sacramento. It was by all accounts a good move.

Ms. COLLISON: I'm sitting in the ladder-back chair and I'm looking out the window at fluffy white clouds in a blue sky.

COLLISON: This was Mom about a week after she and Chaz had settled into her two-bedroom independent living apartment up on the fourth floor.

Ms. COLLISON: It's nice to know that this is home now, and it feels like home. And we were very, very comfortable and happy that we've made this move.

COLLISON: A lot has happened since Mom's Good Move, and sadly much of it is not good. In 2003, Mom got breast cancer, and during her radiation treatments, Chaz, her partner of 10 years who she got together with after my dad died, passed away. After that, she went into a pretty severe depression. And at the same time, her physical health eroded. A degenerative knee that her doctor, Jim Sheebrol(ph), says is probably the worst knee he's ever seen on any human being, and chronic lower back pain, has her alternating between a walker on good days and a wheelchair most of the time.

Dr. JIM SHEEBROL (Peg's Doctor): And then as I cared for her, through time, she started to slip into a dementia process which, to our best guess, is an Alzheimer's-type process and likely progressive. So she's been in this prolonged run of just losses. When do the gains come, you know? And that's very difficult.

COLLISON: Her most recent loss was having to give up that sunny independent living apartment on the fourth floor.

(Soundbite of packing tape)

COLLISON: My brother Frank and I are packing up her smaller assisted living apartment on the second floor, which she lived in for just four or five weeks, and getting her settled into her room in skilled nursing, which is on the ground floor.

FRANK (Dan's Brother): I'm trying to be organized, because that's the only way I can keep my sanity here. Excuse me.

(Soundbite of packing tape)

FRANK: I feel very sad that she is, each time, losing more and more possessions. There's a play called the--What's it called?--it's by Boris Vian, and in each act this family flees to a higher and higher room in a building and they have less and less until the final act is just the father left in a 4-by-8 room. And kind of Mom's space has diminished over the years and--along with her health.

COLLISON: To some residents here, the idea of skilled nursing is that it's a place where one is sentenced to. It doesn't have real good memories for Mom because it was where Chaz died. So I asked her how she feels about making it her new home.

Ms. COLLISON: I think it's--as of now, it sounds like a practical idea. But I haven't thought things over or talked things over very much.

COLLISON: The fact is she doesn't like to be in skilled nursing at all, and I know that, and she doesn't really like to talk about it.

Ms. COLLISON: Take it away. I can't do it.

COLLISON: She asks me to turn the tape recorder off.

Ms. COLLISON: And I don't mean I can't do more. I mean, I can't voice my feelings.

COLLISON: Off tape, she did talk more openly, and she talked about having things taken from her, things like her apartment and her car, her driving privileges and really her independence. And she got teary-eyed and talked about feeling totally overwhelmed and powerless about all these things. And then she raised the idea of moving in with my wife and me, and she said she would clean our house and walk the dog and even talked about starting a little knitting or sewing shop. And you know, I actually wasn't sure if she was serious or not. Later on, she claimed she never made the housecleaning offer.

(Soundbite of music)

COLLISON: There were times after we brought down all the belongings of hers that would fit into a room that Mom seemed to be starting to accept this latest move. She'd hum along to Oscar Peterson on her boom box beside her bed. She would read poetry. She loves reading poetry. And she even invited her friends and fellow residents, Jim and Nancy Pollack, over to see what she called her new homey room.

Ms. COLLISON: Come in and admire the decor.

Mr. JIM POLLACK: Yeah.

Ms. NANCY POLLACK: Yes.

I'm glad to see her in the acceptance mood of where she is, and I think that's very difficult for anybody, and especially for a very independent person like Peg. But she is coming around very well, I feel, in a healthy way.

(Soundbite of television programming)

Unidentified Woman #5: Happy new year to the West Coast of the United States.

COLLISON: But the whole time I was there, I kept thinking about this scene from Mom's Good Move, the series we produced together, and how Mom really hadn't been banking on living a life by herself.

Ms. COLLISON: Well, it's the year 2000, and Chaz and I are--have celebrated all evening long, and it seems to be a good time to think about how we feel about that new year. And I'm pretty excited about the idea of going into a new place and a new town. What about you?

CHAZ (Peg's Partner): Well, I just--going to be a complete change in our lives.

Ms. COLLISON: Now you say a complete change.

CHAZ: Well...

Ms. COLLISON: I know what you mean, but what do you think is still going to be the same? What will we still have?

CHAZ: Each other, obviously.

Ms. COLLISON: Happy new year, my dear.

CHAZ: Happy new year to you, love.

Ms. COLLISON: I'm really--I really think it's going to be great, as long as we're together.

Well, I remember when I said that and thought to myself that maybe that's a little--reaching a little too far, knowing how his health was. But there are times where the past looked much appealing than the present.

COLLISON: She's a very bright lady. She can see the writing on the wall. And if you polled the nation and you put it out there, this is everybody's worst nightmare. Nobody wants to get old and frail and have their freedoms taken away. I mean, none of us want that. We want to live good, long, healthy lives, be independent and then die really fast of something, hopefully in our sleep and painlessly. It's unfortunate, though, that it just doesn't always work out that way. So we're going to help cushion her fall essentially, but I don't think that we can prevent it or stop it. I wish we could.

RICK(ph) (Peg's Friend): Hi, sweetie.

COLLISON: One of the people who is helping to cushion the fall is her good friend Rick. Rick isn't a resident here. He's the husband of the minister at Mom's church. Mom calls him her adopted son and she absolutely adores him.

Ms. COLLISON: Oh, I was going to do a poem for you and...

COLLISON: Rick has been helping Mom try to come up with a title for this story.

RICK: Mom's Good Move 2, the sequel.

Ms. COLLISON: No. The sequel. That's better.

RICK: How about Mom's Scooter Move, after your little scooting around on the floor the other day?

Ms. COLLISON: (Laughs)

RICK: That's one of the reasons that she always wants me around, I think, is because I can make her laugh, no matter how she's feeling, almost always can make her laugh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICK: Mom's Good Movement, maybe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLISON: No, no, no, no. You're speaking to somebody who is quizzed on that topic every morning in skilled nursing.

COLLISON: You know, I said, `You know, I'm going to have to be leaving soon.' And she said, `Well, you know, the thing I'm worried about is I don't know how to get home from here.' And I said, `Well, Mom, this is your home. This is your room here.' And she said to me, `Oh, boy. You know, there I went again, didn't realize where I was or who I was.'

(Soundbite of music)

COLLISON: As I head for home, I try to remind myself that Mom's actually pretty fortunate to be here and we should all be really thankful about that. She has loving friends. She's, you know, in a good place with caring staff. But I have to say it's hard to feel OK about this latest move if Mom's not happy about it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. COLLISON: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

COLLISON: A couple months later, Mom flew to Los Angeles for my brother's wedding. I thought it was a bad idea, but she really rose to the occasion, and she read this Longfellow poem during the ceremony.

Ms. COLLISON: (Reading) Kind hearts are the gardens; kind thoughts are the roots.

COLLISON: Since then, she's been like a new woman. Her mood and her outlook are much better, and her memory has really improved. It's hard to say just why. It could be a change in her medication, or it could be she's just come to terms with where she is now. All I know is we're just glad to have her back.

Ms. COLLISON: (Reading) Take care of your garden and keep out the weeds, and fill it with sunshine, kind words and kind deeds.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Our story Mom's Good Move comes to us from independent producer Dan Collison in Chicago. It was edited by Elizabeth Meister. You can hear the earlier installments in this series at our Web site, npr.org.

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