Written by By Sandra C. Liebler
The traditional view of growing old seems to include a decline into helplessness, where we become a burden to others or even a victim of others’ unkindness. But as the aging population grows in number and the average life span increases, the vision of our later years is changing. Today we expect to live longer, healthier lives; to be more active, to age on our own terms. Yet there is still the big fear—that of losing control of our bodies and our lives, of becoming dependent on others and at the mercy of their decisions, however well-meaning those decisions might be. But what if that scenario can be altered to where, although we can’t stop the aging process, we can stop the sense of inevitable helplessness and dependency. How much better it would be to have a sense of taking charge of the future rather than waiting for plans to be made for us. Here are five stories of people who have made pro-active choices they hope will serve them well into their later years.
Bob & Sylvia Hunt : Gave their main home to the children
Bob and Sylvia Hunt built their home on the James River in 1968. Here they raised two children and made a home (in an adjoining apartment) for Sylvia’s parents until their death. About three years ago, they took a hard look—just as they were aging, so was their three-level home, and there was no first-floor bedroom. They visited some area senior communities but didn’t feel drawn to that type of living.
Reluctant to give up their home and life on the river, they came up with an idea. While their daughter was settled in the mid-west with her family, their son was living in Williamsburg. They proposed that their son and his wife would move into the main house, while Sylvia and Bob would expand and remodel the attached apartment, which, in recent years, had been rented to professors and graduate students from the College of William & Mary.
The idea seemed like a winner for all, but it took another two years to work through architect plans, legal counsel, financial considerations and county regulations, followed by the actual remodeling of the apartment and the main house. The one-floor apartment meets specifications set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including a shower stall with no raised threshold and wider doorways in the event of wheelchair use.
Bob, 79, and Sylvia, 75, love their new arrangement. They’re close to family—including their two-and-a-half-year-old grandson Coleman—while maintaining their privacy and independence. Bob, retired after 37 years as Dean of Admissions for the College, now spends time volunteering for the Kiwanis Club. In addition to making pottery in her basement studio, Sylvia is an accomplished musician. She plays the autoharp with a group that performs locally, and friends come by to jam on a regular basis.
A recent reversal of expected roles, namely the young caring for the old, occurred when their daughter-in-law had to undergo surgery. Bob and Sylvia were there to help during her recovery, caring for Coleman and helping with household tasks.
Bill & Barbie Brink : Moved to a continuing care community
Bill and Barbie Brink met while attending the College of William & Mary and got married right after graduation. After a stint in the Marine Corps, they settled in Connecticut, where Bill worked primarily in the insurance field and Barbie worked part-time in banking while raising their two daughters. Eventually, in 1998, they retired back to where they had fallen in love with each other, and with the town. They bought an elegant home on a pond facing a golf course. The sloping lawn was enhanced by Barbie’s flowerbeds and Bill’s meticulous care of the shrubs and grass.
The Brinks have always stayed active with outdoor sports, such as tennis, skiing and golf; but Barbie has suffered ongoing problems with arthritis, and Bill will soon need hip surgery. In 2003, facing the increasing difficulty of keeping up their home and yard, they elected to move to WindsorMeade, a full-spectrum senior community that includes access to a fitness center and other amenities such as lawn maintenance and dining options. Selling their home took longer than expected, but early this year they moved into their new home. Although it was a downsize for them, this new home has plenty of space yet relieves them of much of the upkeep of a larger house. Barbie has, on a smaller scale, begun to recreate flowerbeds using her favorite plants. Bill continues his golfing; but most of his vigilant lawn care is now being done by others, both depriving and relieving him of a task that served as a form of exercise as well as a source of pride. Bill realizes, as does Barbie, that this was a timely move, although there have been a number of adjustments. Barbie likes the option of “going out to eat” in the dining hall while Bill often prefers eating at home. The Brinks, married for 58 years, are both still active; and, as Barbie says of their new home, “It’s a great place to grow old.” She’s glad they made the move before becoming handicapped or limited in their ability to be an active part of their community.
Wayne & Laurie Randolph : Chose to stay put and remodel
About 10 years ago, the Randolphs bought the home that seemed to suit their needs—near both their workplaces and shopping hubs, in an established neighborhood, and with a wooded lot that had no grass to mow. The one-story 1970s-era rancher needed some updating, and the floor plan wasn’t ideal; but a new kitchen and a few other initial modifications improved the interior’s look and functionality.
Wayne is a costumed interpreter for Colonial Williamsburg, demonstrating 18th century farming techniques. Laurie, who works in a medical office, loves to cook and entertain. Both are now in their mid-60s and still active, but they are considering what their future needs might be. After looking around at other housing and making comparisons, they concluded that their current home continues to be their best option.
They are now in the planning stages of a major remodeling project that involves enlarging the master bedroom and bath, laundry area and outside deck. While keeping the wooded surroundings, they plan to widen the front sidewalk, put maintenance-free plants in the existing beds and improve outside lighting. The new design will allow for eventual wheelchair access if needed and will improve the home’s overall functionality. It is their hope that they can remain in this house for the rest of their lives.
Chuck & Kay Handley : Decided to rent a luxury apartment
Chuck and Kay Handley were stationed at Fort Monroe during the 1970s. After Chuck retired they eventually returned to Hampton, where they lived in a home on the water. As Chuck’s health declined, it became increasingly difficult to keep up the lawn and house. So three years ago, they sold their home and moved to The Chamberlin. An elegant 1920s-era hotel on the grounds of Fort Monroe, it has now been converted to rental apartments primarily for seniors.
Chuck, 78, is now on oxygen and is grateful to no longer have to mow the grass or find someone to do it, and Kay says they never tire of the views from their fifth floor apartment—weddings and concerts at the Fort Monroe gazebo, ships passing by, and ever changing water and sky. “We’re just glad we did this while we’re still able to enjoy it,” says Kay. They stay in touch with friends from their old neighborhood and have made new friends at The Chamberlin. They still drive but are glad that transportation is available if they need it in the future. Housekeeping is provided, and Kay, 74, stays active using the fitness facilities downstairs. The small kitchen serves their needs, but they can also dine downstairs in a restaurant. They love the history of Fort Monroe and of The Chamberlin itself—their two kids (who are “thrilled” with their parents’ decision) both went to Senior Prom there. The Handleys have been married for 56 years and are loving life—no regrets as to their decision, which has been a positive change in every way.
Penny Swisher : Downsized to a smaller, one-story home
Penny Swisher and her husband, retired school administrator and published author Jim, spent 33 years in their suburban split-level home in Lynchburg, raising two children, caring for Jim’s mother and later an elderly aunt. Then came years of travel and research for Jim’s writing. When Jim’s health began a long downward spiral, they faced the reality that the finished basement (Jim’s office and “man room”) as well as the upper level bedrooms were inaccessible. They began looking for one-floor, low-maintenance housing options, but Jim’s death came sooner than expected. Penny was left with a big house filled with memories and a big yard to tend. But since the emotional process of deciding to sell the home had already been addressed, she was able to make a clear decision to downsize; she found what she wanted in a new planned community, close enough to both her married children and their families, large enough inside but with very little yard to maintain. She had it designed with wider doorways and one entrance without steps.
Now in her late 60s, Penny is still youthful, outgoing and active in her local DAR chapter. She enjoys traveling and having her grandchildren for overnight visits. She sees this home as one that should suit her needs as she ages, allowing her to remain independent as long as possible. She stresses the need to first “make a plan” before moving, and to “only keep what you love and can use” as you downsize. She found it freeing to give many of her unneeded possessions to others who could use them. She has gradually replaced some furnishings and given this home a new look rather than a diminished version of the old one. Penny has quickly blended into her new community, a mix of single-family homes, townhomes and apartments, with neighbors of all ages and lots of new friends.