Facing alternatives as we age

#170 in a series of true experiences in real estate
November 1996, Hills Newspapers

Before my mother died earlier this year, she needed help at home. There was the laundry and grocery shopping, sometimes a hand to the bathroom, and she didn’t feel comfortable being alone at night.

I invited her to come stay at my house but she didn’t want to. “I want to be in my own bed,” she said. “Besides, you already have your hands full. You can’t take care of me, too.”

And so she hired assistance at what turned out to be a surprisingly high cost. She didn’t require full time nursing care, but help was needed at various times of the day and night, and that was just the problem. She couldn’t have someone come in for an hour here and there because she didn’t know when help would be needed. A twenty-four hour person was the only answer, and this is very expensive.

We assured one another frequently that the situation was only temporary, that she’d be on her independent feet again soon. But she wasn’t, and as the cost of helpers rose, she fretted that she was running out of cash and, worse in her mind, would be forced to tap into her children’s inheritance.

This last seemed nonsense to me, and I said so. What I wanted, I said, was not her money, but her, preferably well and happy in her own home. It didn’t matter what I said. For years he had generously paid for piano lessons, new shoes, and camping equipment for my children, but had not spent much of anything beyond the basics on herself.

I know that she worried terribly as time went on and she was not her “old self.” Still, whenever she could, she offered me a good word. I’d call and she’d say, “I’m pretty good today, slept well, and Barbara fixed me a nice breakfast.”

These were the good days, but Barbara was still there, and we both knew she or someone else like her would probably continue to be.

Could we have planned better for this time? I don’t know.

My mother began a teaching career late, in her early forties, after my father died. She did have a pension plan that provided her a check each month. She also received Social Security. She had Medicare coverage and a supplemental health plan that paid for most of her expenses while she was in the hospital and, for a brief period afterward, a visiting nurse at home.

None of these was enough to provide help at home.

This week we talked with a woman who is in the same kind of spot. She has been ill and was hospitalized but she has been sent home now, hopefully to mend. She doesn’t move around easily anymore and can no longer drive her car.

Helen and her husband bought the house where she still lives some thirty years ago and raised their children there. It is a pretty two-story house, well maintained, warm and comfortable -the place where she expected to live out her days.

She can see the garden from the bedroom where she spends most of her time now, her TV is there, and although it takes up quite a lot of space, the rented hospital bed goes up and down at the press of a switch – a boon to her comfort.

Helen’s daughter contacted a consultant who specializes in assisting the elderly, and through her, they hired home care. For the most part, the helpers have been wonderful. A favorite by the name of Peggy is there the day we visit. She’s robust and cheerful, bustles around fixing up tea, then goes out to the patio to water the container plants.

But money is running out. Helen could move into her daughter’s home but, like my mother, she doesn’t want to. Also familiar to me, Helen is concerned about “using up my children’s inheritance.”

She is thinking of selling the house. It is her largest asset. She hopes that it will sell for enough to provide her cash to buy again, yet leave her money to pay her additional expenses. Maybe a condo would work, she says, something close to home, all on one level, and with enough space for her caregiver.

She realizes it would be a big project. We agree. Selling and moving, packing, discarding – let alone looking for another home and buying it – are huge even for healthy young people, those who still run up and down stairs carrying things as they go.

Helen points out that she is still in control. It is still possible for her to take her time selling, to search for another place, and to move there – to be in charge of this part of her life. She does not want to be forced at a later date to make a hasty, and likely even more difficult, retreat.

Our minds are racing. We’d like to figure out how to keep this woman in her house. We’re wishing for a brilliant solution, a way to produce enough money to stop Helen from worry. We tell her that we will go away and think, do research, come back. We’ll look at sales of condos and some that are available now, and we’ll look at the dollars, where she would be money-wise if she sells, and where she might be if she didn’t.

“There’s got to be a way to keep her in her house,” we say to one another. “What about a reverse smortgage?” That afternoon we start looking for one that will loan enough money.

We estimate taxes, costs of sale, costs of buying. We run numbers, lots of numbers, in preparation for seeing Helen again soon.

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