Sue Corrado shares with Mary Jo Saavedra the experience of moving to Mary's Woods.
Sue Corrado shares with Mary Jo Saavedra the experience of moving to Mary's Woods.
Mary Jo Saavedra figured her masters degree in gerontology would help her and her sister care for their aging mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Instead, she learned how little she knew, and how little was known about helping the elderly age with dignity.

Saavedra’s sister and their mother were at a Kinko’s printing shop when their mother fell, taking Saavedra’s sister down with her. Her sister was released from the hospital within a few days, but their mother was in the hospital for about a month. It became clear that she would never live independently again. Saavedra’s sister saw that their mother’s care had gotten to be more than she could handle, and so the sisters moved their mother to a very good facility, the memory residency at Maryville.

Even so, once someone with Alzheimer’s disease moves to a new place, the decline is typically rapid, says Saavedra.

That’s because the person’s brain no longer encodes new information. They’re lost all the time.

If the elder is an outgoing person, it’s possible they’ll be all right, or even thrive.
Saavedra’s mother did not. She died six months later of pneumonia.

In the midst of her grieving, Saavedra saw that there was little for people in her and her sister’s situation to refer to, to help them make the decision

“I was shocked by the lack of knowledge I was able to get my hands on,” she says.  “I had to ferret out the information from other caregivers.”

She took a class from Ruth Cohen, an aging life-care manager, on family systems, and she realized that she could help others with what she was learning. “I —  and caregivers in general — make mistakes, have a lot of grief in the process, and spend a lot of money.

I decided to course correct my career.”

She earned an Aging Care Management certificate, and now counsels others. She helps clients put themselves in the elder’s place in a respectful way in the midst of what lies at the heart of relationships in the last years: preparing to say good-bye.

She reminds family members that no matter how old a person is, they want to remain in control of their own lives, want their autonomy. And yet caregivers want their parent to be safe. They don’t want their parent falling, leaving the stove on, or, the biggest issue of all, injuring someone else while they’re behind the wheel of a vehicle. “They want me to tell them how to convince their parent of ‘a,’ ‘b’ and ‘c,’” says Saavedra.

She does an assessment, and helps both sides figure out their priorities and concerns of what is the most rewarding life they can now live?

She helps adult children understand that their concern with their parent’s safety needs to be balanced with the priority of not ripping them out of their home.

Sometimes she does play the bad-guy role, telling a senior that their expectations of independence are unrealistic.

Some of Saavedra’s tips are for people much younger than those facing a move to a care facility.

She recommends, for instance, that people in their 50s or younger begin making sure their social networks are in place. “Just being involved with a women’s group at your church or a knitting circle, a prayer group or a group of friends who play bridge together is helpful,” she says.

Being part of those groups reinforces the habit of being social, and helps people stay connected.

She also suggests hiring a person to come clean the house a couple times a month, or help garden. That will make it easier to handle the process when it’s not an option but a necessity.

Saavedra also says imagining living with others — a Golden Girls-type group home — in order to be open to the idea is a good idea.

“One size does not fit all,” she says, “when it comes to senior living environments.”

While some people might fit into a senior residence like Mary’s Woods, others might choose a group home or foster home — a moniker Saavedra dislikes. “They’re independent homes,” she says. In them, a couple cares for up to five seniors, charging a monthly rate.

“It’s exciting if you’re looking at the process from an empowerment perspective,” she says. “It’s scary if you’re looking at it from a diminishment perspective. We’re all losing a little bit of something, whether it’s eyesight, friends, or mobility. The question is, ‘what’s the best way to live all the way to the end.’”