It is a steamy summer morning in Chicago, the morning of the day Bob Goldie had hoped would never arrive. As he sets out on the familiar three-mile drive from his lakefront condominium to his mother Celia’s condo on the North Side, Bob, a sales representative for a men’s clothing company, steels himself for the approaching ordeal by going over the facts once more: Celia, who turned 90 on April 4, has been in decline ever since she suffered a heart attack and a stroke three years ago. She recovered well enough physically, but the hospitalization left her chronically anxious, suffering repeated attacks of such terror that she has frequently summoned an ambulance. Bob hired a succession of live-in companions, but his mother’s fears would not be eased—she calls him and his wife, Marsha, incessantly, complaining bitterly about the smallest annoyances. Her doctors agree that Celia should no longer live on her own. Bob loves his mother. The decision he is about to convey to her simply has to be the right one; he is convinced it is the only thing he can do.
Celia is ready and waiting when she hears his key in the lock. Dressed in her tan suit, she smiles in anticipation of the deli brunch that has become their Saturday ritual: She looks forward to these visits from her only child, wishes she could see him more often but understands about his work. “You’re lucky you have a son who looks after you,” her sister Shirley often reminds her. “Other sons don’t come around.”
Bob opens the door and walks over to Celia, who is sitting in her favorite highback chair. “Hi, honey,” he says. “How you doing, kid?” Before she can get to her feet, he pulls a chair to her side. “I want to talk to you,” he says, leaning close. Get it over with, he thinks. I’m 56 years old, but right now I feel like a kid who has misbehaved.
“Mom,” he says. “We got a call from the Lieberman Centre. They are preparing a room for you to move into next Friday.” He pauses, trying to gauge her reaction. Celia remains silent. “It’s really the best thing for you,” Bob says, the words he has rehearsed so many times tumbling out rapidly now. “You won’t be alone anymore. You’ll have people around you. You’ll have things to do.”
Celia’s hands are tightly clasped in her lap. Her eyes roam around the living room of the apartment she has lived in for 25 years. She looks at the old Italian cabinet filled with teacups and porcelain, the Chinese figurines her cousin brought her after World War II, the framed needlepoint of peasants laboring in a field, the gold cherub lamp that Helena, her latest companion, accidentally broke yesterday. Finally her eyes meet Bob’s.
“But this is my home,” Celia says quietly. “This is my home.”
Like countless other men and women, Celia Goldie never expected to spend her last days in a home for the elderly. But for older Americans, living at home is becoming more difficult. Some 1.5 million—5 percent of the population over 65—reside in nursing homes, where the average fee is $30,000 a year. And as medical advances enhance our prospects for living to the ripeness of old age and beyond, the number of old people who are incapable of living alone is rising. There are now 6.2 million Americans 80 and older, and that figure will nearly double in the next 20 years. For more and more sons and daughters of parents who can’t care for themselves, nursing homes seem the only solution.
Experts say the decision to institutionalize an elderly parent should not be viewed with dread. “We have to look at nursing homes as facilities that help people live as full lives as possible, not as places for people to go to die,” says Dr. Vivian Carlin, 69, a psychologist and gerontologist. But few people do see nursing homes that way. For most of the elderly and their children, the movement from home to a home is one of life’s most wrenching emotional experiences. For Celia and Bob Goldie, it was devastating.
Celia Arisohn was born in Romania, the eldest child of a gentlemen’s hatmaker. In 1910 her family moved to Chicago, where Celia, her two brothers and two sisters were put to work in their father’s hat factory. A dark-haired girl whose singing voice made her the hit of family parties, Celia dreamed of a career on Broadway. Instead, she remained at the factory for two decades, putting in long days and eventually caring for her ailing parents after-hours. By the time she married, at 34, she knew she could always take care of herself, and she was proud of it.
Celia’s husband, Jack Goldie, was an equipment manager for the Chicago Bears. Their marriage was a good one, though they had few common interests. A stocky man with a penchant for fat cigars, Jack loved all sports. Celia’s passions—which she tried to instill in her only son—were music and drama. When Jack was on the road with the Bears, Celia and Bob shared evenings listening to Jack Armstrong and The Shadow on the radio. Weekends, she would take him to concerts at Orchestra Hall or the opera house. “My father and I were best friends—we had more in common,” says Bob, who also loved sports. “But my mother and I were always close because we spent a lot of time together.” When Bob left for school, Celia saw him off; when he came home each afternoon, she greeted him with a kiss. She taught him how to behave and never showed weakness. “She was an Old World mother, always there,” Bob says. “But she demanded good manners and high standards and didn’t hesitate to give me the back of her hand. I got around my father more easily than my mother. She was really a remarkable woman—warm and loving, yet feisty and determined.”
After Jack died in 1968, Celia resolutely carried on, and she did it beautifully. For 17 years she lived alone contentedly, cooking and cleaning, even chasing around on city buses in search of bargains. She saw Bob and Marsha on birthdays and holidays, talked often on the phone and several times a month had her three grandchildren, Maria, now 33, Ellyn, 31, and Marc, 28, over for a home-cooked meal. She continued to take center stage at family gatherings, singing Irving Berlin numbers or Sesame Street tunes with the great-grandchildren. “She had so much get-up-and-go,” says Marc’s wife, Linda. “We couldn’t believe she was a woman in her late 80s.”
Then, in February 1985, age sent a cruel reminder. Celia had a heart attack, followed by a stroke that impaired her speech and weakened her left side. She had seemed almost invincible—hadn’t she managed to outlive three of her younger siblings and nearly all of her friends? Now, for the first time, Bob had to face her mortality. “I thought about a nursing home, but the thought terrified me,” he says. To his relief, Celia’s doctors advised against it. She would recover faster in familiar surroundings, they said.
It is another hot summer morning, the day after Bob’s announcement. He had expected his mother to protest yesterday, but, surprisingly, she had made no objection. Hearing the dreaded words had somehow taken all the fight out of her. Always a proud woman—her daughter-in-law says she has “an air of Romanian aristocracy”—Celia did not argue. Instead, she looked straight at her son, nodded slowly and said, “Okay.”
Today, she is not feeling especially proud: She is trying to dress herself before Bob and Marsha come to start packing her things, and the snaps on her suit jacket are refusing to cooperate. “I can’t do this,” she calls out to Helena Bialon, 27, her latest companion. “Lady, leave it open. It’s hot,” replies Helena, who is busy applying her eye shadow. Celia clucks her tongue and raises her hands in exasperation. “Okay, okay, lady,” says Helena, emerging from the bathroom. Impatiently, she fastens the recalcitrant snap. “If I don’t close it, I can’t tie the belt,” explains Celia, sorry to have caused offense. Helena goes back to the bathroom, Celia trailing behind. “If I don’t tie it, I’ll lose it,” Celia persists. No response. Forlornly, Celia returns to the living room.
Once her makeup is on, Helena bids Celia goodbye and departs for her day off. There is little for Celia to do but wait and reminisce. She talks of the old days, the good days, when Jack was still alive. “My husband and I took a boat to Italy on vacation,” she tells a visitor. “He was in football, and every Sunday we would go to Wrig…Wrig…Wrigley Field.” She waves her hands, frustrated that the words do not flow as they once did.
Suddenly, her face contorts. “I wish I were dead,” Celia sobs, covering her eyes with her hand. “What do I have to live for? I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I never see them, they don’t bother with me…. I like it here. I eat my lunch and I go down to the lobby. The boys behind the desk all know me. I want to stay in my home.”
After her stroke, looking frail, Celia returned to her apartment in the care of two full-time practical nurses. At $600 a week, their services would eat up much of her $25,000 savings. As her health improved, Bob replaced the nurses with a housekeeper. “Once my mother seemed to recover, I thought our worries were over and our lives would return to normal,” he says. Six months later he realized he was wrong.
Celia’s illnesses had taken a heavy emotional toll. The condo that once seemed so cozy now felt empty, especially in the evenings and on weekends, when the housekeeper was gone. Celia remembered falling ill at home once before—what if it should happen again with no one there to help? She had never been the worrying sort, but suddenly there seemed to be so much to fear. Whenever she was left alone, she would frantically telephone Bob and Marsha. “I’m an old lady,” she would remind them, her voice trembling with fear. “I can’t be alone here.” As time passed, her anxiety grew. She would complain that she couldn’t breathe, that she was about to faint or that her chest felt tight with pain. Several times her terror became overwhelming. Twice she called an ambulance; once she phoned a neighbor, who had her rushed to an emergency room. Each time, she awoke in the hospital baffled and asked the nurses why she was not at home.
Increasingly alarmed, Bob hired a young woman to keep her company around the clock. But Celia only called more frequently, on ever slighter pretexts. “What should I wear?” she would ask Bob. “Should I turn on the air-conditioning?” Her new companion seemed only a source of irritation. “The girl,” as Celia called her, had lost the apartment key, or hadn’t fixed Celia’s hair right or had bought too many potatoes.
Bob replaced the first companion with a second, then a third. There was no improvement.
On her last night at home, Celia pads around the apartment wearing curlers and a red-striped housecoat. She is upset because Helena has gone upstairs to the sundeck for a cigarette. “She fixed my hair and then she went off. Who needs her?” Celia cries. “Isn’t it terrible? She goes upstairs when she knows I have to go away tomorrow. She broke my lamp. It’s terrible when you have to depend on other people.”
She gets up. Thumbing through her address book, she dials a neighbor to say goodbye. There is no answer. “What can I do?” she asks, holding the phone. “I guess Bob has to do it. It’s because the girl leaves me alone all the time. I’m not looking forward to it, but that’s the way it is.” She crosses the room, picks up a blue-and-gold china plate resting on the dining room buffet and runs her fingers along its rim. “I think my sister is very put out, because she wants this,” says Celia, “but I told her, ‘I’m sorry, that’s for my children.’ The nerve of people to come into my home and tell me what they want.” Clutching the plate to her chest, Celia sinks into a chair. She looks tired, and the dark circles around her eyes have deepened. “Can you imagine?” she exclaims. “Everyone keeps telling me I’ll be better off. I wouldn’t wish this on a dog.”
As the weeks passed, the stories Celia told her family grew more fanciful. “She would call me and say the girl had gone to the store and wasn’t coming back,” says Maria Parilla, her granddaughter. “Later she wouldn’t remember she had called. She had me over a barrel because I didn’t know what to believe. Once she said the girl had left and taken all her clothes.”
Bob knew that his mother’s phone calls masked a terrible loneliness, but the knowledge didn’t help. “The stress began to wear me down,” he says. “My mother couldn’t make a decision. She depended on me for everything.”
Worse, his mother was changing in other ways, too. The old Celia had always kept busy at home. Now she sat and stared at the TV, hardly knowing and not caring what she watched. “It bothered me to see her wasting away in her apartment without any social contact,” Bob says. He insisted that her companion take her to a neighborhood senior citizens’ program offering lectures and card games two times a week. Dutifully, she went, but she took no pleasure in it and seemed to remember nothing of what happened there.
For Bob, the most disturbing change was his mother’s sudden indifference to her appearance. She had always been exceedingly vain; now, though he bought her new outfits, she wore the same thing day after day. “It hurt to see her looking unkempt and wearing stained clothes,” Bob says. “She used to be so elegant and dignified. She always had a kind of nobility.”
Bob Goldie is not easy about sharing emotions. Troubled and frightened by his mother’s metamorphosis, he reacted by getting angry. Normally even-tempered, he yelled at his family. When his mother’s phone calls upset him, he hung up on her. He and Celia argued constantly when they were together. Once, when Bob came to take Celia to brunch and found her in the same stained blue pantsuit she had worn the two Saturdays before, he left without her. When Marsha suggested he try to be more patient, he lashed out, telling her she didn’t understand. “Bob would lose his cool because he couldn’t accept her limitations,” Marsha says. “He expected her to be like she was when she was 60.”
In time, the Goldies began to fear for their economic survival. Eighteen months after her stroke, Celia’s savings were gone, and her $597 monthly social security check fell far short of covering her $700 mortgage and condominium maintenance fees, her grocery and utility bills and her companion’s $160 a week salary. The burden fell on Bob and Marsha, whose combined annual income of $55,000 was already stretched to the limit by the financial help they were giving their divorced daughter, Ellyn, and her 7-year-old son. “All I could see down the line,” says Bob, “was a severe financial crisis.”
Marsha foresaw a different kind of crisis. “Bob was so tense it scared me,” she says. “He had a heart attack 13 years ago, and I was sure he was headed for another one. I wanted him to see a social worker, but he kept insisting he didn’t have a problem. We went through some hard times together during our 35 years of marriage, including a separation, but this thing with his mother added incredible stress.”
Finally, at Marsha’s urging, Bob visited a nursing home a few blocks from where they live. He was not reassured. “It was just like all the horror stories I had heard,” he recalls. “Dark, dingy, with foul smells in the halls and people lying around doing nothing. At that stage I was looking for every reason not to put her in a home.” Bob and Marsha considered moving Celia into their two-bedroom condo. But with Bob away often on business and Marsha working as a secretary at a medical center, Celia would have been on her own most of the time. “I’m sure I’m the bad one,” Marsha says now, “but I felt Bob and I could lead a more normal life if his mother were in a home.”
And so, a year ago, Bob took Celia for an interview at the Jacob and Marcelle Lieberman Geriatric Health Centre, a 240-bed long-term-care facility in suburban Skokie run by the Council for Jewish Elderly. Financially, the center would be a godsend: Celia’s private room charge of $105 a day would be covered by public aid and the center’s funding. More important, Bob found the place “clean, bright and cheerful. There were lounges on every floor and activities going on.”
Celia was unimpressed. She sat stubbornly in the lobby, refusing to look at the rooms and pleading loudly with her son. “If you were a daughter,” she cried, “you wouldn’t do this to me.”
“I wanted to take care of her,” Bob says. “She had devoted her whole life to taking care of my father and me. But my money was running out. I had no choice.” Taking a deep breath, he added his mother’s name to the center’s waiting list.
“How can you do this to your mother?” one of Celia’s childhood friends demanded, during an irate call from Miami. “Your mother almost died giving birth to you!”
“What kind of son are you?” a cousin screamed. “My children would never put me away like that!”
The day Celia is to check into the nursing home, Bob and Marsha are up early. Marsha wants to buy flowers to brighten her mother-in-law’s new room, and a few of Celia’s belongings still remain to be packed.
Putting on her tan suit jacket, Celia surveys her living room for the last time. “Don’t leave any of my pictures,” she says sternly. Leaning on her cane, she takes Helena’s arm and steps out the door, head back, jaw thrust forward. In the lobby she waves to the desk attendant.
“I’m going away,” she tells him.
“We’ll miss you,” he says.
At the nursing home Marsha is waiting with a bouquet of summer flowers. “Every day is going to be as pretty as these,” she tells Celia. “I could have been home,” mumbles Celia in sullen rebuke. Then she notices a man in a wheelchair. His arms hang at his sides, and over his pants he wears a rubber diaper. Disgusted, Celia rolls her eyes heavenward.
Upstairs, in room 537, a matronly nurse named Helga welcomes Celia to the center. Glancing around the spotless, freshly painted room, Celia catches sight of her collection of pictures—one of her and Jack on their son’s wedding day, one of her parents, one of her great-grandchildren. The sight is too much for her. Her shoulders shake, she tries to hold back the sobs, and her companion, Helena, suddenly rushes over to envelop her in a hug.
Calmer now, Celia tugs at the name tag the nurse has attached to her wrist. “Do I have to wear this all the time?” she asks.
“Yes, so you don’t forget where you live, and so everyone can see you belong on the fifth floor,” Helga tells her in a singsong tone. Slipping a clipboard from beneath her arm, Helga tells Celia it is time to answer some questions.
“Can you cut your own food?” she asks.
“Yes, sure,” answers Celia.
“Even something like a chicken leg?”
“What about elimination—do you go to the bathroom by yourself?”
“That’s very good,”
“So what am I doing here?” says Celia.
After Celia goes to lunch, Bob and Marsha slip quietly away. “I keep thinking about my father,” says Bob. “He was 64 years old when he died. I visited him on Sunday, and on Monday he was gone. Now I’m bringing my mother to a place like this, and you wonder, who is better off?
“But her acceptance is amazing,” he adds. “When I brought her here a year ago, she was so opposed.”
Back from lunch, Celia is in her room, crying. “How could my son do this to me? I didn’t make a big stink about it because I thought Bob would be more satisfied that way,” she says, tears rolling down her face. “I don’t want it to be on his conscience.
But it’s horrible to lock someone up in a room like this. I hope I drop dead before I’m here one year.”
Life for Bob and Marsha has grown more peaceful in past weeks. Bob is more relaxed; his nights are restful again. “Before, I was always waiting for a phone call in the middle of the night,” he says. “Now I know my mother is in good hands. She laughs more, she’s less anxious, and she hasn’t called here once.”
Celia does indeed seem to have made the adjustment. At first, nurses said, she stayed in her room alone, watching television, staring at the walls or sleeping. Then, gradually, she began to spend time in the fifth-floor sitting area, conversing with other patients and the staff. Bob has visited her more than ever—at least twice a week. Marsha frequently stops during her lunch hour, and Celia’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren have dropped by every weekend. Often, four generations of Goldies gather in the Lieberman Centre garden, where the toddlers have room to play. “Mamma mia,” Celia will say as she watches them, occasionally poking one or another with her cane, “look at all my beautiful babies.” Even when her family isn’t there, the nurses say, Celia keeps busy attending discussion groups and going on group shopping trips. And she has learned the ropes. Taking up a position in the lobby, she will watch the clock for the moment when it is time to move toward the dining room, so as not to be last in line. “The food is good,” she reports. On this, her 28th day at the center, Celia Goldie is sizing up her situation. “What good does it do to complain to Bob?” she asks. “He will only get upset. He did the best he could. I know he has peace of mind now, knowing I am here. But everyone here is the same. They don’t want to be here. All everyone does is wait to eat and wait to nap.”
She is poised elegantly on a sofa, her eyes bright and clear. Dressed in a smart lavender suit, she is wearing gold earrings and looks out of place among the housecoats and nurses’ uniforms. She points disdainfully to a neighbor wearing furry red slippers and wonders how any woman can appear in public that way. Across the room, another woman hikes up her blouse to tuck in her slip. Celia clucks disapprovingly. “A lot of them are crazy,” she says. “One lady cries all the time, ‘My son, my son.’ And there’s another one who runs back and forth hollering in the halls.”
On this day Celia has decided to attend the ice-cream social being held in the party room on the main floor. She takes her seat as a woman resident begins to bang out old songs on the piano—”I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “School Days.” As a group of women in the front row strikes up a chorus, Celia exclaims, “See, it’s talent from the house!” and starts clapping and swaying to the music. “Last week,” she says, “there was an Israeli singing group, and they went from floor to floor. It was wonderful.”
For an hour she smiles and sings with animation. “That’s ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart,’ ” she cries at one point, recognizing the melody even before the pianist has reached the fourth chord. “Why doesn’t somebody waltz?”
Nearby, a nurse spoon-feeds ice cream to a man strapped into a wheelchair. Beside him, a woman dozes, her head against her walker.
“Look at them—half of them are dead,” Celia says, waving her hand. “I’m alive. I guess I have to make the best of a bad bargain. What can I do? I can’t go back. So I have to like it here. You look around you, and you realize how grateful you are.”
She does look around, again, and then she straightens her shoulders. “Of course, there’s no place like home,” she says. “But you have to be a lady about things.”