By Joy Fields
When my fiercely independent mother recently suffered myriad health issues, it was clear she could no longer live alone. My husband and I were faced with finding an assisted living facility that would address all her health needs, but provide her with a comfortable social atmosphere that would keep her mentally healthy as well. We had to add to the decision making mix her being very active in Houston’s Jewish community—an area of town a 45 minute drive from us. Without traffic. When’s that?
Mom had been a five- to ten-minute bus ride from two Reform temples, two Conservative temples and a “Sephardic” temple, which made her raise her eyebrows but had the best onegs (post service desserts). There were also Orthodox temples and a Lubavitch Center but really, darling, who needs to be that religious? Friends accompanied her to the nearby Jewish Community Center for occasional classes, artistic performances and lunch seminars where, to be honest, she couldn’t quite understand the rebbe, but the lox was fantastic. She sang in two choirs and led karaoke as a volunteer at a Jewish nursing home.
Our suburb has one temple that services every denomination within a thirty mile radius. Over half the families are interfaith and there are many from a plethora of backgrounds who converted. The shul is open most Friday nights, plus Sunday and Wednesday evenings for classes. No choir. No cantor. The rabbi sings slightly off-tune but can be drowned out pretty easily.
The grocery store next to Mom’s apartment complex had every imaginable kosher-for-Passover item on display a month before the holidays. She could get up early in the morning and stock up on pesadich borscht before the masses completely bought it out (kosher for Passover beet soup—really, not something anyone need to know about). She could buy enough garlic/onion Tam Tams to provide snacks for twenty friends. Don’t worry darling, those never go bad. Sometimes she’d pull out a box in September and offer you one to prove that point.
Our suburban grocery stores usually remember to order multipacks of plain white matzah. They also carry gefilte fish in the “ethnic aisle” between the hoisin sauce and the frijoles. Not sure why.
My husband and I both work full time and were already exhausted from our numerous commutes to her hospital room near her old digs. We knew that if Mom were closer to us, we’d be able to visit more regularly and address her emergency issues (like bottle tops being screwed on too tightly, running out of pennies before the Bingo tournament or the prescription caddy spilling, which seems a higher priority to me).
So after a whirlwind of Internet searching and facility touring, we found a great place near us. In an ethnically diverse environment that would expose her to cultural richness from all over the world, but no JCC.
It’s a safe but affordable studio, with three daily meals served in a high ceilinged, brightly lit room on white linen and china, where she can be seated with friendly residents. Snacks available 24/7. Van transportation for appointments, organized outings and “WallyWorld Wednesdays.” On-site therapists, nurses, aids, beauticians and an activities director that would put The Love Boat staff to shame. There was even a sing-along group. We showed Mom the “Standard Favorites” song list. She could later ease in to gospel night.
At first Mom was very apprehensive, but realizing she would not be able to care for herself and not wanting to move in with us, she agreed to try it out. We addressed her dietary concerns: There were substitute menu items for pork chop night. She could politely decline bacon at breakfast. The activities director would introduce her around to residents who had similar interests to sit with. We explained showing silent respect to anyone blessing their meal according to their custom, without being expected to join in. No one would force her to cross herself. Or eat the crunchy white part of the lettuce that she hates.
We arranged all of her furniture that would fit as closely as possible to her previous apartment layout. Her prayer books and song books were on the most easy to reach bookcase shelf. Her Jewish community newspaper would arrive in her new mailbox. As, of course, would the TV guide. (This may not have religious significance to you, but to the retired, it’s universally sacred.)
We hung her family photos and set out her knick-knacks. Her “Shalom Y’all” and “Keep Calm and Kosher On” magnets were on her mini-fridge. Her candle holders and hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) were displayed on a top shelf. No way were we giving her matches…um, facility rules. We affixed a magnet to her mezuzah so it would hang on her door frame.
This turned out to be a conversation starter with residents taking a walker break in front of her door. She loved explaining what that “thing” was, and what was on the scroll inside it. Several of her neighbors had short term memory problems so she could explain it again the next day. And they could share background on their religious articles with her. Repeatedly.
We set out a large calendar and several pens so she could keep track of appointments. We set out her address book, because who needs to type all those numbers into your phone when you can just look it up? We pointed out the cords for emergency help, there, there and there. We clarified the definition of “emergency.”
We stocked her mini-fridge with healthy snacks, and were encouraged to later find her checking labels for non-vegetarian ingredients to make sure she could share with her new Hindu neighbor across the hall.
Very quickly, we were assured her transition was going smoothly. I picked up a prescription for her on my way home from work, and signed in to the reception area. One of Mom’s new lunch partners shuffled by and winked at me, adding, “Oh, aren’t you a mensch! But I think she’s about to say ganug on the meds already.” (Yiddish for “good person” and “enough.”)
I pressed the elevator button. The door swung open and there was Mom, practically running me down with her walker. “Hi Mom, I got your medication.”
“Oh, thanks, doll. Just put it up in my room. They’re having a wine and cheese party in the activity room and I don’t want to be late.”
Praised be the maker of the fruit of the vine.