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Retirement home

There's a symbiotic relationship between old people and the medical community: they keep us alive and we keep them in business. Moreover, most religions and governments oppose suicide, and most people choose not to do that. The result is that many people grow old and must decide where and how to live out their final years.

Like most people, I swore I would never live in a retirement home. In fact, my husband and I were so opposed to the idea that when we had our dream home built on the slopes of Mt. Dean Stone we had a downstairs apartment included. Our plan was that when we got old and needed help, a live-in caregiver could live there and look after us.

However, in 2017 when my husband was suffering from ill health and was going in and out of the hospital and my health was deteriorating, we learned that finding somebody to live with and care for us was virtually impossible. We tried various organizations, but none of those seemed to offer what we needed.

Eventually, my husband moved permanently into the Village Health Care Center, and I was left alone in a big house on a steep hillside with a long, curving driveway. I couldn't even walk down that driveway to get the mail. At 91, it seemed unwise to drive my car. I was lonely, overwhelmed by trying to maintain our house and yard, and becoming seriously depressed.

My children were increasingly concerned by my living alone and asked me to consider moving into a retirement home, an idea that I refused even to consider. Nonetheless, they explored all such establishments in the area and concluded that the Village Senior Residence would be the best choice for me.

On Jan. 21, 2018, after 34 years in our home, in desperation I moved into a one-bedroom apartment facing Larchmont Golf Course and the mountains beyond. I was devastated and felt completely numb. The first evening that I was to go down to the dining room I was fearful and asked my daughter to go with me. There I faced a room full of old people using walkers and canes, and I felt completely overwhelmed. What was I doing here?

After a couple of weeks I realized these were just ordinary people who had grown old. Now, after a year of living here, I've come to see them as just people. People come in all ages and variations. There are baby-people, little kid-people, teenage people, and on until these same people get old. Eventually we all die. That's just the way it is.

In the meantime, even though this is the only place I've ever lived where there are traffic jams with walkers, these people have become my friends. They are all individuals, just like people in other age groups. There are retired lawyers, dentists, engineers, business people, sales people, nurses and many University of Montana staff people. There's a woman who taught men to fly airplanes; another was a nurse in World War II.

Many of the people are veterans of various American wars. Many of the women were housewives like me. But we are all human beings with our own experiences and life stories. We've all played our part in the great human saga, as are those younger than us.

My prejudice against living in a retirement community was unfounded. In my present circumstances I am safe and I am very well cared for. I don't need to worry about icy driveways. My friends and family who visit me say my new living space, with my own furniture, my books and my artwork, make them feel at home here. I've broadened my horizons and found new friends. My fears were unfounded, and I'm happy in my new home.

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Donna D. Heilman of Missoula taught high-school history and philosophy before retiring, and was an organizer for and the first president of Friends of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. 

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