Monday, March 19 , 2018, 3:27 pm | Fair 67º

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Moving to Senior Living Center an Emotional Transition for Two Generations

To help your parents make their move, be sure to pack plenty of empathy and patience

[Noozhawk’s note: This is a preview of a fresh series of new Senior Living stories that will be posted Monday afternoon on Noozhawk.]

Leeana McNeilley had deferred to her parents for most of her life. But recently, she had to figure out how to be the adult.

“I was the child for 50 years,” she explained. “You keep that relationship when you are an adult and defer to their wisdom, but at some point the tables need to turn.

“It’s like a tight rope, having to still respect their wishes and independence but still keep in mind their safety.”

For more than 20 years, Help Unlimited's Leeana McNeilley has been assisting seniors with their transition to dependent living. Having gone through the process with her own parents, she can relate to those with whom she works.
For more than 20 years, Help Unlimited’s Leeana McNeilley has been assisting seniors with their transition to dependent living. Having gone through the process with her own parents, she can relate to those with whom she works.

McNeilley’s role changed from child to adult when her mother’s Alzheimer’s worsened and her father’s physical health failed about seven years ago.

“If you live long enough you become your children’s children,” said Marlene Shann, the daughter of a Villa Santa Barbara resident who moved her father, Mort, into the retirement community against his will after he became a fall risk.

McNeilley’s parents, Gwen and Duane, learned to compensate for each other’s shortcomings, she said.

“Between them they made one solid person because my mom was physically OK and dad was frail,” McNeilley said. “They didn’t just compensate for one another, they covered for one another to protect their little world because they were fearful of change.”

Although her father swore never to go on dialysis, when his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s he decided to endure the treatment. Adding an in-home caregiver became a necessity. It would alter their routine, but it was the only way McNeilley could know her parents were safe. The change didn’t come easily.

“There were a couple of conversations where my dad got very defensive about giving up his independence,” McNeilley said. “It was a combination of him being stubborn, proud, fearful — it was the whole soup that brewed that made him react the way he did.”

Whether it’s made out of choice or necessity, many seniors do make the transition to a dependent lifestyle. McNeilley has helped ease that transition for more than 20 years as the executive director of Help Unlimited, which provides families with in-home care and other services.

“It changes my relationship with the people I talk to by giving me an instant empathy with them,” she said. “I used to think I was a compassionate person but now that’s expanded exponentially and given it a whole different meaning.”

While some parents don’t take to the idea of help kindly, a son or daughter can make it easier by talking from the heart and letting his or her parents have control of the conversation, McNeilley said.

“Take a deep breath, don’t take anything personally and include them in the decision-making process as much as you can,” she said. “You want to keep it about them without using words that are going to make them feel guilty.

“I tried to talk to them from my heart: ‘This is what I see and how it makes me feel. How do you think we should approach this?’”

It’s a lot to take in all at once for both parties, which is why it’s important to take things one step at a time and not make the situation overwhelming, McNeilley said.

“It’s painful because your dad is always your protector, you think you’re daddy’s little girl,” she said. “To see your parents become so frail is always really hard. You just have to just change your whole outlook.”

McNeilley advised looking at it as keeping one’s independence rather than losing one’s freedom.

“If all it takes is someone being there three hours a day to keep living where you want to live rather than making a major life transition, it’s worth it,” she said. “Accept a little bit of help in order to stay where you want to be.”

Having a trusted third party sit in on the conversation might help as well, said McNeilley, who suggested asking a family physician or financial planner to do so.

“Sometimes someone who is not emotionally involved will be seen as more of an authority than the child who is now taking on that role, and offer solutions the family hasn’t thought about,” she said.

About a year ago, McNeilley’s father decided to go off dialysis because there weren’t any “good days” left, she said. Her parents visited assisted-living community centers in the meantime and Gwen fell in love with The Gables of Ojai. Duane died three days later.

“I think all he wanted was to know she was going to be taken care of, he was at ease,” McNeilley said.

Although many seniors resist change, some understand it’s necessary. Robert Newsome was suffering from clinical depression after his wife died.

“I had been hiding my condition for a couple of years, my home was in disrepair, I lost 50 pounds, hadn’t bathed or cut my hair for a year,” he said. “I slowly drifted away and didn’t have the sense I needed to do something. I had an overwhelming fear and terror that there was nothing I can do.”

His children visited Newsome one day and found him passed out on the floor. After he was hospitalized, he moved to Marge Mason’s Montecito Senior Care facility, where he met friends and began a new life.

“I maintained my independence and am preparing to become a part of the community’s staff to continue my life’s work,” the former Presbyterian minister said.

Villa Santa Barbara resident Ruthe Rich became very lonely after her husband died.

“When I moved here everyone was so friendly and we have a good time together,” she said. “It turned out for the better.”

Rebekah Kendrick, a Villa Santa Barbara resident, said it may be helpful to interview residents of the prospective community to get some feedback. It’s also important to bring pieces of furniture or intrinsic memorabilia.

“It saved my life when it came down to it,” Newsome said.

Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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