My mother celebrated her 83rd birthday just as she wanted: in the presence of her children, close friends and a plate of succulent crab legs.
Over her celebration weekend, we also took in a coffeehouse poet, enjoyed "Riverdance" and ate spicy chicken wings during Super Bowl Five-O.
And, because my brothers and I were together, and we sensed that the timing was good, we scheduled "the conversation."
I've written often about aging, counseling readers not to wait to ask the important questions of parents:
Where, and how, do you see yourself living when you can no longer live independently? Do you think it might be time to give up driving? How will we know if you fall? Are your will and health care directives up to date?
Then I broached the subject firsthand. Boy, was that tough.
Fortunately, my widowed and still healthy mom is a retired nursing school dean with a no-nonsense Midwestern sensibility from formative years spent in Iowa. I pulled out a napkin onto which we grown kids had scribbled questions. She was quick to answer many. She pushed back on a few. We laughed.
And I left my mother's house, 1,200 miles from my own, feeling relieved. My brothers and I aren't finished helping her manage the next chapter or two, but we cleared the highest hurdle — the simple, nerve-racking step of getting started.
Many of us put off the conversation until it's too late for our parents to be partners in big decisions about their lives. It can be hard or sad to talk about possible losses on the horizon — of friendships, independence, health.
But if we don't jump in, we might cheat our parents out of a life-affirming world of aging far removed from dismal old-school nursing homes.
So grab a napkin already.
"Senior care has evolved so much," said David Schless, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Seniors Housing Association. In late January, the senior housing consortium launched a robust website (whereyoulivematters.org) to help seniors and their families navigate a spectrum of living options — with an emphasis on living.
The site offers videos about overcoming fears of moving and how to start conversations, as well as advice on exercise, good nutrition and managing finances.
"There's a focus on health and wellness, a recognition that people can really enjoy and grow every day, irrespective of their age or personal circumstances," Schless said. "That really is why most people say, 'I wish I had done this sooner.' "
Lucky for us, Minnesota offers outstanding senior resources and options — from home care to independent living apartments to assisted living with medical support to nursing homes.
In fact, we rank first in the nation for long-term services, noted Jodi Boyne, spokeswoman of LeadingAge Minnesota, a nonprofit that represents providers of long-term care. And we're in the top fourth of states for affordability and access, choice of setting and provider, quality of life and support for family caregivers.
The growing number of options is no coincidence. The metro area's five all-suburban counties will see their 65-plus populations more than double over the next 30 years. Most of those seniors want to "age in place."
Homework and a light heart
Adult children may view this talk much like the sex talk they had with their own kids. In the best cases, we talk about healthy sexuality throughout their childhoods, in age-appropriate language, instead of sitting down once (when it's probably too late).
Similarly, Boyne said, adult children can look for regular avenues into a conversation while parents are healthy, and to focus on how they want to age or what home means to them. If, for example, Mom mentions that her best friend just moved into a senior apartment, ask, "Would you ever be interested in something like that?"
If the answer is no, find out why. Sometimes, based perhaps on the grim and isolating nursing homes that were typical decades ago, misconceptions remain.
"The best thing you can do is visit those facilities," Boyne said, noting that you might pass by a room full of seniors doing tai chi or yoga. "Go at different times of the day. Meet the nurses, director, residents. Visiting and talking will give you the best feeling for those communities."
Kirstin Olson of St. Paul began to notice memory loss in her vibrant, elegant mother, Martha, about five years ago. At one point, Olson, the youngest of three siblings, lived with her parents, in part "to give Dad breaks," she said.
"I'm lucky that my dad is a take-charge man," said Olson, 49, a substitute teacher and mother of two teens. Her father, Dick, is a retired IBM executive who once traveled the world with Martha. In recent years, he downsized twice, sought out the best medical care for his wife and invited his children to join him at an annual dementia conference.
Dick and Martha now live at Ecumen Seasons at Maplewood, and he serves on the non-profit's Board of Trustees. Kirstin visits weekly and is grateful to be part of this transition. Her advice to other adult children?
Get educated. And laugh when you can.
"Our family has a wonderful sense of humor," Kirstin said. "We're always looking for something humorous about what's going on. You have to remember to enjoy them."