January 20, 2006


It’s hell getting old
by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

It was a warm October day when I sat with my godfather on the stoop of his home. I had my arm around him and was trying to comfort him. He had just lost his wife of over 40 years, my godmother, the night before. He was in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s, sometimes knowing those around him and sometimes not. As we sat in silence and I wondered if he even knew who I was at that moment or realized what was happening, he turned to me and looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s hell getting old, Kerri, I know I never wanted to live to see this day.”

I had heard my mother say it before as she grappled with the loss of her only brother, her husband and son, most of her contemporaries and fought a growing list of health issues. She’s 81 now and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not only hell for the people who are in their winter years, but it is hell for their families as well, and that’s especially true if your parents did not plan for their declining health.

My father’s job lulled my parents into a false sense of security, for railroad workers collect a pension rather than having to rely only on Social Security.

But my father died when he was only 58 years old, just eight months from his planned retirement, leaving my mother with half of his monthly pension, a little over $1,000 a month when she turned 65. Like many women of this generation, my mother had worked little outside of the home, besides temporary seasonal jobs. If there wasn’t enough money to save while raising their family, there was less to save working as a cashier and living on her own after my father’s death.

An energetic woman until a massive heart attack just after she turned 79, her health issues caught her, as well as her family off guard. Although the numbers told us she was getting up there, her actions did not.

My first taste of the reality low-income seniors face came several months after that heart attack when I talked her into looking into an independent living center with an assisted living option. It wasn’t like some of the places I had written stories about, but it wasn’t a bad place. It would only cost us an additional $300 a month more than what she made. However, she was not ready for that choice and my husband and I have been able to assist her in staying in her rented duplex. But two falls and her increasingly dusty home has made us realize that it is time for her to start considering an apartment in a senior complex.

The best of these complexes have game rooms, pools, plenty of opt-in activities, day trips, transportation, alarm devices in apartments and other amenities. Some also have assisted living units on the same campus for people as they continue to need more services. These apartments are lovely and they start at a minimum of $1,500 a month and many have “buy-in” requirements. The most expensive one I found went up to $3,800 a month.

One of my mother’s two surviving friends suffered a stroke last year. Of course, she had to go to one of the places that’s not located in southern Johnson County, one of the places none of us would like to think our parents would have to go. She complains to my mother about the food, the uncleanliness of the cafeteria and of the moaning residents that no one pays attention to.

One of my friends spoke recently of another nursing home her father-in-law was recently sent to recover from surgery.

“I swear, the place smelled so of pee when I walked in, I about lost my breakfast,” she told me one morning. “I’m glad he’s alert and will be out of there. Most of those people just sit around in the halls of that place in wheelchairs with no one ever paying any attention to them.”

I’ve known others who have put off getting their parents around-the-clock-care for Alzheimer’s and other dementia because they were afraid a nursing home and the government would take their parents $40,000 homes, which was everything they had worked for all of their lives, just so they could be sent to one of these places. Homes and other property must be in another’s name for a certain length of time or the state can take it if an elderly person has to go on Medicaid for long-term care. In the United States, over 5 million seniors are on Medicaid in order to qualify for even the worst of long-term care facilities, and every year the government proposes to cut Medicaid benefits for those seniors.

This is how we are taking care of our Greatest Generation, the generation who survived the Great Depression and fought oppression in World War II. While we fight a preemptive war in Iraq and spend billions of dollars to rebuild an infrastructure we’ve destroyed with bombs, seniors in America who have worked all of their lives and paid taxes are sitting slumped in wheelchairs in the halls of low-income nursing homes.

Experts believe there will be less money when the millions of baby boomers start to fall into ill health. It’s a terrible dilemma, not only for our parents, but for us as well. My husband and I have no children, so the question of where we will go should we fall into ill health during our senior years is frightening. So, we try to plan and save for our future while ensuring our parents have reasonable care in the present.

For my godfather, it isn’t so bad. His family is taking turns taking care of him right now, but they know there will be a point when they can no longer do so. He has assets and most likely be one of the lucky ones.

I dread the possibility we will have to have the discussion about long-term care with my mother again. How can we tell her that she will have to go on state assistance — something she has abhorred all of her life? We cannot afford to see her live her final days with the best of care, but hopefully, we will be able to find one of those places that at least doesn’t make us lose our food when we visit.

For seniors and their families who have had to deal with the complexities of growing old on a tight budget, we’ve seen the future and it is hell growing old.

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell can be contacted at


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