RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For The Record. There are at least 43 million people in this country over the age of 65. And in 35 years that number is expected to double. That means more families than ever are grappling with a difficult decision - what to do when a grandparent, a parent or spouse can no longer take care of themselves and live on their own? And the conversation around that can be a difficult one. For The Record today - aging out and moving on.
We begin with 73-year-old Juanita Gillette. She and her husband lived in Chicago for decades. They raised their kids there, had a full life, a house they loved. But when that house started to age, they began to notice their own limitations.
JUANITA GILLETTE: Things started breaking down. And you don't have the money to fix it. You know, the older you get, you know, you start breaking down, and the house starts breaking down. And there's no extra money coming in.
MARTIN: Eighty-eight-year-old John Kaiser and his wife, Dorothy, had been living out their golden years in Florida. Dorothy had a stroke. But John says they were managing the most basic tasks together.
JOHN KAISER: Between her being able to do a little footwork and me supporting her - between us we could transfer to the commode, to the wheelchair, into the car. So we still went out and played duplicate bridge, and we had our normal life. And we were doing just fine.
MARTIN: Then his wife took a turn for the worse.
KAISER: And that changed the whole equation.
MARTIN: On the other side of this story is Hope Heidenrike of Dayton, Ohio.
HOPE HEIDENRIKE: My father is going to be 89. He is on dialysis three times a week.
MARTIN: And her mom, who's 80, is starting to have memory problems. Hope says she's afraid of getting more phone calls like this one that happened recently.
HEIDENRIKE: I called my mom, and she's like, well, your dad's on the floor. And I was like, why? And she goes, well, he fell, and he hasn't been able to get up for the last two hours. I go, why is he there? And she's like, well, he doesn't want me to call anybody. And I'm like, well, then I'm calling. And I literally hung up on my mother, called the local number for the EMS and sent the EMS squad out there so they could scoop my dad up off the floor and make sure he was OK. And I caught holy heck for that.
MARTIN: So first there's a realization that things have changed. Then, for a lot of families, there is a conversation. For John Kaiser, it was a short one. His wife was really sick. He couldn't take care of her alone, and his kids wanted them to move closer into an assisted care facility in Washington, D.C.
KAISER: One day my daughter called me and told me that this isn't sustainable. I immediately recognized that.
MARTIN: Juanita Gillette's conversations with her kids also happened long-distance.
GILLETTE: Every time we would talk to them, they were like, mom, dad, you guys are getting older. Something happens to you, we've got to get on a plane. We've got to do this. And it would be just so much easier, and, you know, we were like...
MARTIN: What did you say in those conversations?
GILLETTE: I was like, no, no, no. You know, I'm fine.
MARTIN: For Juanita, the idea of moving to a different state to a seniors-only community felt like giving up.
GILLETTE: I thought you move into this place, you have a whole bunch of old people sitting down looking at you and just watching the door and waiting for their relatives to come and take them somewhere.
MARTIN: Hope Heidenrike had the conversation with her parents a few months ago.
HEIDENRIKE: We were in the family room which is where my parents spend most of their time. It's where my dad's lift chair is, and it started out OK. And then as soon as I would say, you know, well, what kind of a time frame are we thinking here, they both immediately - oh, we're not ready for that yet. We don't need that. They don't feel like they are, quote, nursing home material, unquote. And they basically shut the conversation down. I love my parents very much, and whenever they are hurting or get hurt or are struggling, it just really bothers me that I can't do anything about it.
MARTIN: After some convincing by her kids, Juanita Gillette and her husband, Calvin, sold their house in Chicago and moved into a co-op for seniors, The Palm Terrace in Ontario, California. The downsizing took some time to get used to.
GILLETTE: When I saw the apartment I was like, oh, my God.
MARTIN: But in the end, Juanita says it was the right choice. She likes the community. There are potlucks and, yes, there is bingo. And something she didn't expect - leaving home, moving into this place, has drawn her even closer to her husband.
GILLETTE: The apartment is smaller. It makes us talk more. As we get older, we seem to realize that, you know, we love each other more and more as time goes by. Where you're younger, and you're busy, you're doing things, you're trying to raise the kids and everything. You'll say, oh, yeah, I love you, or you know I love you. But now we really talk about how we really feel about each other.
MARTIN: John Kaiser and his wife ended up moving to an assisted living complex close to where many of his kids and 18 grandkids live. It's called Sunrise Senior Living in Washington. His wife, Dorothy, passed away three years ago. He still lives in the same apartment he shared with her. And when he thinks about his life now, he is clear eyed.
KAISER: I'm in the last chapter of my book of life. I've been able to take chapters and put them on a shelf. So that Florida life was wonderful. We had a lot of great times. I just close that book, and put it away.
MARTIN: Although he acknowledges that starting over late in life can be more difficult for others.
KAISER: I know a lot of people can't make that change. They don't like to go out and put themselves in a dining room with 40 strangers every night. But, you know, you have to be realistic about your needs.
MARTIN: For many people, the most comfortable and often most affordable option is to move in with other family members. John says he and his wife never considered that. They didn't want to burden their kids and had resources to pay for assisted living. But Juanita says it is still a real possibility for her. Although there are family politics at play.
GILLETTE: I've talked to my daughters and so now the thing is knowing my three daughters, I have to kind of lean toward the one that I'm not going to be fussing with a lot.
GILLETTE: You know. I can do something, and they won't be, like, mom, why'd you do that? You know? And so I hope and pray that the lord let me live independent for a long time. I don't want to hurt their feelings but oo wee.
MARTIN: Meanwhile, Hope Heidenrike is still working through this process with her parents. She's offered to have the move into her house, but they don't want to talk about that either. She says it feels like the whole parent-child relationship has been flipped on its head, and she wants others to be prepared to face the same thing.
HEIDENRIKE: I always thought that kind of my parents were, you know, invincible, and they were the ones that would, you know, always take care of me. And in a much quicker fashion, those roles have reversed. So do think about it, do start having the conversations, even if they don't go well at first.
MARTIN: Hope's next move - she's planning to ask a local minister who lives nearby if he can help facilitate yet another talk with her parents about what comes next.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.