Melissa Carter: Going to grandma’s house in the ATL

It took my son two months to do what I’ve attempted to do myself for more than a decade. My mother, Millie Pete, is now an Atlanta resident.

When Mr. Carter was born in October, Millie Pete decided she wanted to permanently be near her grandson by Christmas. She beat that deadline by a month, moving into a local retirement community over Thanksgiving weekend. Since he’s her only grandchild, and she turned 85 this year, you can understand the haste.

When you see the phrase “retirement community,” the initial reaction is usually one of sympathy. We don’t want to think about getting old, and the idea of placing a loved one in one of “those places” seems like a last resort. I remember when my grandmother was older and needed constant medical care in Kentucky. Millie Pete had to make that tough decision and moved Miss Martha into a “Shady Acres” environment. My aunts had tried to take care of her in their home, but it was too much for them to handle while working full time jobs.

In the 1970s, being in a nursing home meant having a hospital bed as a place to lay your head while you suffered through your roommate’s cries at night. Miss Martha had several roommates, including the wandering woman who had to be handcuffed to her bed and the woman who climbed into my grandmother’s bed every night for comfort. My grandmother once told my mom that despite being in her 90s, she never felt old until she moved into that place.

That was then. Now, Shady Acres has turned into “Hotel Silver Hair,” and you wish you were old enough to move in.
It was Mom’s idea to find a retirement community to move into. Keenly aware of her age, Millie Pete told me she’d rather go ahead and “nest” in a facility while she’s physically and mentally active so that when she becomes debilitated she will already have friends and know the staff well. I think she learned that lesson by watching my grandmother’s experience.

What’s changed? Everything. Facilities have figured out that not all elders are alike, and just because you are old doesn’t mean you’re simply waiting to die.

There are only two differences between my mother’s new apartment and yours. Her bathroom is equipped with several bars for stability and an emergency nurse call cord in case she falls. And in order to prevent accidental fires, there is no stove in the kitchen. Other than that, standing in her one-bedroom digs, you would have no idea you were in a facility.

If she doesn’t have a stove, how does she cook her food? Why bother, since she goes downstairs to a linen tabled restaurant for her meals three times a day. She also has her trash and laundry done for her and a concierge service responds at the click of the button she has on her at all times.

When I went to see her the morning after her move, she told me she had already been to breakfast, then went to work out before coming back to meet with me. The place has happy hours and movies, Tai Chi and shopping trips. They escort her to doctors’ appointments and take her to see musicals. Hospital gowns and housecoats have been replaced with hair salons and massage appointments. They even gave her a bottle of wine and chocolates as a welcome gift when she moved in.

I am proud of her ability to embrace change at this age, and am grateful for her effort to be closer to Mr. Carter. Whether Mom lives two more years or ten, I am excited to know the “Third Phase” of her life (as she calls it) doesn’t have to be depressing. And my son will get to see pictures and hear stories of him hanging out with Grandma Millie Pete at her cool new place.