Sandy prompts some elderly to seek assisted living

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MASSAPEQUA, N.Y. (AP) — For the first time in her life, Marion Johnston says she feels old.

The petite, red-haired 80-year-old retired school secretary, who uses a walker to get around, is still adjusting to her surroundings as one of the newest residents at the Bristal Assisted Living retirement community. She moved in last month after the howling winds and rising flood waters of Superstorm Sandy destroyed her Long Island waterfront condominium.

Johnston had often thought about moving out of her home but Sandy "was the straw that broke the camel's back. I just can't be on my own."

Although New York and New Jersey health care officials say it is too soon to confirm a spike, some senior care operators say they have seen a surge in older people relocating to assisted-living or retirement communities after Sandy. Prolonged power outages, wrecked homes and flooded streets have helped convince even the most stubborn seniors that they may not be capable of living independently.

"Very often you need that little push over the cliff to make you realize," said Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein, director of geriatric education at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. She is not surprised to hear facilities are experiencing increased demand. "When your home is leaking and flooding and you're sitting in the dark, you come to realize you no longer have the skills of survivorship."

Maryellen McKeon, senior vice president of operations for Ultimate Care New York, LLC, which runs eight Bristal facilities in the New York area, said the company's 5 percent vacancy vanished after the storm. "It definitely gave us a jolt," she said.

"We have the same thing after snowstorms or heat waves," McKeon said. "Someone may be isolated in a house and realize, 'my daughter was right,' and the reality of your vulnerability sinks in."

Wolf-Klein noted, "the move to assisted living can be extremely difficult to do. There's an acceptance that the independence you cherished for a long time is now coming to an end. There's an acceptance of aging and time marching on."

Johnston, a widow who raised three children with her late husband, had lived by herself in an Amityville condominium for the past 14 years. Amid dire storm warnings ahead of Sandy's arrival, Johnston's daughter took her mother to her home in nearby Lindenhurst. It was a prudent decision, since the condominium was destroyed by the storm surge, says daughter Linda Monaco.

"The canal came up and went through her entire house; water came in the back door and went out the front door," Monaco said. Johnston has not wanted to return to see the destruction. "I have a china cabinet with Waterford crystal," Johnston says, only to be corrected by her daughter: "You had a china cabinet; that's shot."

Although her own home was spared from flooding, Monaco said much of her Lindenhurst community was not as fortunate; several houses burned to the ground and her neighborhood was without heat or electricity for two weeks. Monaco quickly realized she could not care for her mother, who was shivering under a mountain of blankets. Within days of Sandy's departure, Monaco said she was lucky to find a space for her mother at the Bristal facility in Massapequa, about two miles from Johnston's home.

Johnston is still adjusting to her new surroundings, where residents are monitored by staff and given three meals a day, plus a spectrum of activities from music appreciation seminars and Bingo to trips to Broadway shows.

"I have been an independent person," Johnston said. "This is the first time in my life that I felt old and it's a little shocking. It is a tremendous emotional adjustment."

Her daughter agrees. "It's an emotional shock when you realize, oh, my God, I am no longer completely independent and I do need assistance and I need care and kindness of strangers.'"

Anne Pinter, senior vice president of the national assisted-living company Atria, said her company's Northeast facilities saw an 18 percent increase in occupancy during October and November, compared with a year ago.

"There's always some sort of trigger event, whether it's a fall or a bad spell of health or a weather event," Pinter said. In the case of the storm, children who ordinarily would be available to assist their parents were stuck contending with their own power outages or storm repair issues creating additional anxiety for everyone.

"All of a sudden they just can't get there," Pinter said.

Patty Tucker, a spokeswoman for the Health Care Association of New Jersey — a trade group representing assisted living facilities and nursing homes — said there has been an increase in temporary admissions to assisted living facilities, but said it may be too soon to know if those seeking shelter while their homes are repaired will remain permanently. Pinter said her company typically sees about a 30 percent retention rate in those who initially move in temporarily and then opt for permanent residence.

Lorraine Miller lived in her ranch house in the Harbor Isle community of Island Park for 41 years until four feet of water came gushing in during the storm. Miller, who turned 84 on Dec. 24, used to work as a dental assistant for her late husband. She had been being prodded for years by her children to sell the house and move to assisted living. She finally relented after the superstorm.

"I really didn't want to go because I love my home," she said. But Sandy was the clincher that convinced her to move; she now lives at an Atria facility in Lynbrook. "I can't go back at this age and start buying furniture and appliances and all the rest. I'm better off here where I get three delicious meals a day and they come and clean up your apartment and make your bed. What could be better?"

Wolf-Klein and others said the adjustment to a parent moving out of a home also relieves stress on their children.

"I was feeling the pressure. I was feeling like I could not assist her for that much longer," Monaco said of her mother. "For me it's been a tremendous relief. I now can go to bed at night without a concern that she's going to fall.

"It used to be I would call my mother and if she didn't answer the phone, my stomach would start to simmer. Now I know nothing can happen that I won't know about."

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