Cookie Crumbs, Booty Lifts and Unexpected Encounters: A Tour of Senior Living Facilities

Jul 21, 2023 by Amber McClain Shaw, in Blog Posts

I’ve been touring a few senior living places and it’s been so consuming that I am starting to dream about them. I have no urgent need to move anyone, or myself, into one. While I am old enough to qualify to live in most of these places, I’m not looking for myself. I am lucky enough to have two parents and two in-laws who are in their 80s and 90s who live independently. I’m looking at these places because while there is not a need or desire for anyone to move at the moment, I want to be prepared. The world of “retirement living,” my favorite marketing term for these places, is unfamiliar territory. I had no first-hand knowledge of what “retirement living” or “assisted living” is like. I have friends with parents of similar ages, and some have had to move into a safer living situation after a sudden decline in health. I’ve heard about long wait lists, complicated applications, worry over the quality of caregiving, the huge expense, and soul-crushing guilt. So I decided it was time to indulge in some research of my own and go on some informational tours. Join me as I discover eccentric tour guides, puzzling amenities, and some surprises that senior living offers.

An Unexpected Encounter
My very first visit to a senior living facility began in a large Victorian house that seemed to have materialized out of the 19th century, complete with an old-fashioned stagecoach sporting comically oversized wheels. I admired the sweeping staircase of polished wood as I pondered how the residents managed it. I checked in for my appointment, and my tour guide Katy eagerly approached. Katy was a tall, slim muscular woman with flowing blond hair, and wide open eyes. But her voice. Oh boy, her voice was unexpectedly deep with a touch of masculinity. It was uncanny, reminding me of someone I’ve known for almost twenty years. One of my neighbors, to be exact.

As Katy embarked on her tour, she skillfully blended personal anecdotes about her mother’s aging process, and the features of the facility like alarms and security cameras, with warm enthusiastic greetings for both the residents and staff we passed along the way. She knew everyone by name. We peeked into the exquisite dining room, with its gleaming oiled woodwork and upholstered chairs gathered at tables of four, maroon napkins neatly folded at each place. The china cabinet displayed tastefully bland dishes and cups. Elsewhere, the carpets, curtains, and furniture oscillated between various shades of beige, ivory, and maroon with some crochet and lace accents.

We stepped into one of the units, which resembled a spacious apartment. While I looked around, Katy remarked on its generous proportions but said she couldn’t picture herself living there with her towering husband, who possessed an insatiable appetite for space. It struck me as a peculiar thing to say and a peculiar coincidence. My neighbor, who Katy resembled, had a substantial spouse. But Katy, who knew every resident we passed, showed no signs of recognizing me whatsoever. We continued. Katy casually mentioned her own future plans for aging, relying heavily on her two daughters, especially the one she bought a house for. As I stared at her, I realized that this was indeed the woman who lived down the street, a woman with two adult daughters, and a strapping husband. It had to be. The disturbing part was not that she didn’t recognize me. It was that she was a woman I often see pushing her lawnmower past my house, in her tennis outfit, driven by an apparent fury toward overgrown grass and the neglectful neighbors who allow it. Her immaculate yard was a testament to her fastidiousness, where she could be seen ripping out weeds and vigorously evicting dead leaves. Her wave, which she occasionally greeted neighbors with, was more of a military salute.

The stark contrast between her friendly work persona and the angry figure who aggressively pushed a lawnmower down the street unnerved me. She handed me a brochure. “Goodbye,” Katy said, “I hope your parents can stay at their home until the end.” I took this to mean that she does not recommend her senior living residence, or any other one actually. The thought of entrusting her with the care and well-being of an aging parent sent shivers down my spine.

Since my tour, I’ve seen her several times on the street and given her a hesitant wave. She shows no signs of recognition.

Institutional Oddities
The tour of the next community began in a chaotic lobby where lots of staff members briskly walked around like a modern dance choreography, going in and out of doors, asking where other staff members were. My tour began with a friendly woman in a bright pink sweater with a stain down the front, who escorted me along the wide institutional hallway toward the elevator.  We joined a resident waiting for the elevator. He let out a loud and long hearty fart, and the elevator opened. I hesitated, but we were getting in! I took a big breath and then tried not to breathe.

The garden area was mostly bare dirt with a couple of struggling plants in haphazardly placed pots. The garden also featured a life-sized family of plastic deer. There was a buck and a doe that was posed nursing a Bambi, paint peeling off of all three figures. The crackled paint on the eyes gave them a crazed look. They looked like zombies ready to attack any unsuspecting senior who ventured near. 

This place reminded me of my middle school. The apartments were beige, the wide hallways were beige. Every finish in the apartments and the commons spaces was beige. The dining room was a beige cafeteria. As my tour guide hurriedly showed me the inside of the refrigerator in each unit we toured, she mentioned she was eager to get to the flamenco party she organized for the residents. Intrigued, I asked to stop by the party on my way out. Much to my disappointment, there was no dancing. Residents were sitting in what looked like the teacher’s lounge at my middle school, around beige tables, drinking pink punch out of outlandish flamingo cups. It was a flamingo party, not a flamenco party. Despite the promising opportunity for upgrading the zombie deer yard art, I didn’t see any plastic flamingos on the small lawn outside.


Disheartened by both of these options, I reluctantly made two more appointments.

Classy Upgrades and Warm Cookies
The following week, I walked into a soaring lobby exuding elegance, occupied by two ladies chatting about bingo. My tour guide met me in the lobby, friendly and professional. The outdoor spaces were beautifully furnished with thick blue and yellow striped cushions on the chairs, and were lushly landscaped, pet friendly, and had raised garden beds for the residents. The apartment units were roomy and the place seemed to have plenty of social activities, like happy hour with wine and cheese three times a week. No pink punch in flamingo cups, this place is classy! Picking up on my interest in alcohol, the tour guide mentioned some of the residents host friends for Manhattans in their apartments. I smiled at what a huge improvement this place was over the others I toured so far. As the tour ends, my guide says, “Hold on just a minute, I have a surprise for you from the chef.” He disappeared momentarily and came back with a container holding two enormous warm cookies with chunks of candy bars in them. He also gave me a colorful postcard featuring a grinning gray-haired man in a Hawaiian shirt holding a mai tai, and a photo of several young women’s behinds in hula skirts. I decided right away I’d like to go to this luau and I hope my parents might agree to come with me. Later, when I RSVP’d for the luau, I asked for the cookie recipe. Nope, they replied. It’s their secret weapon. I’m hoping they will have some at the luau.

Beauty and Booty Lifts
A few days later I visited another community. I got there a little early and sat in the lobby to observe the vibe. In this tastefully appointed lobby, a few ladies gathered to work on what seemed to be a cross-word group project. One woman would announce the clue she couldn’t figure out, to see if anyone else knew the answer. “Who is The Rock?” Another woman said, “I think he’s a wrestler.” No one else has a guess so she asked another resident passing through the lobby. He perked up and said, “I think he’s a movie star. But I can’t remember his name.” I couldn’t remember his name either.

The tour guide whisked me from the lobby and I followed her clicking high heels. I noted that the movie theater here, which is a feature of most of the communities, is a really nicely appointed one with lots of brown leather recliners lined up in rows. The Hangover is on the movie schedule, at 4pm. This made me laugh. As we circled back to the lobby, we stopped in the beauty salon. There was a stylist working on curling a resident’s short silver hair.  There was a manicure station as well. This amenity would be very attractive to my mother, to be able to have her hair and nails done so close by. My father will ask, “Do they charge by the number of hairs?” which is his too-often repeated joke about the injustice of being overcharged for haircuts for most of his adult balding life. The salon menu on the counter caught my attention. To my surprise, in addition to the basic services, they offered body sculpting, for the tummy and back, and booty lifts. A booty lift? The fine print explained that a one-hour booty lift was equal to “about 250 squats without the sweating and sore muscles.” To this, you could add on a treatment for double chins, and even a $95 facelift.  This facility had a thoughtful parting gift; a bar of artisan small-batch lemon soap. I kept the soap for myself since I will bring my parents to tour this place and they will get their own bars of soap.

Cruising Into Uncertain Waters
On my tours, I discovered that some retirement living places can be more like festive cruise ships than the offensive-smelling nursing home where I reluctantly visited my grandmother when I was a child. There are smaller and larger cruise ships. They are staffed with uniformed professionals with nametags and their hair pulled back, or enthusiastic flamingo fans in pink sweaters. The living quarters are small, but just like on a cruise, you are not expected to stay in your room all day because there are things to do. There’s a salon and a movie theater, and a restaurant where the food is good and a friendly server gets to know you. There are shore excursions (field trips to local attractions, shopping, and doctor appointments). There are dress-up parties. Games. Happy hours.

I am not a fan of cruising myself, for several reasons. To start with, I don’t enjoy being stuck with the other people on the cruise ship. This could also be an issue with retirement living. Who else will be there living with you? How do you pick one that will be socially engaging and interesting? What if your neighbor throws raucous Manhattan parties with Frank Sinatra singalongs every night? It’s a bit of a risk. This cruise ship doesn’t come back to port. Once you move in, you’re going to stay a while, hopefully, so you might as well find one that you can enjoy. 

My tours so far have been quite eye-opening. I feel a lot better about being able to assess and decide on a place, if the need arises. I feel more prepared. These senior facilities are so much better than the nursing homes of my grandparents. They have dignity and treat aging with respect. They smell good and there are fun things to do, and they are staffed with caring people. Now I know we have some choices that I feel good about. I’ve eliminated the Victorian place and the deer place. The next step is to bring my parents to the luau, and their first tour of a senior living facility.