Local couples in senior homes must adjust to new lifestyle

For Rae and Mike Schatz, leaving their longtime San Francisco apartment and moving into the Jewish Home was a tough but necessary decision.

The two, both 84, decided they could no longer live on their own after Rae took a bad fall and was temporarily unable to care for Mike, who has Parkinson's disease.

So in April, the two packed up and joined the ranks of the small community of married couples who reside together in nursing homes. At San Francisco's Jewish Home, for instance, there are only about a dozen couples out of 450 residents, according to spokeswoman Sherie Koshover.

"It's a relatively small percentage," she said. "There are many, many residents living here at the home who have spouses living outside."

But for Rae, a retired saleswoman at the old Joseph Magnin department store, living outside was becoming increasingly burdensome.

"It was a hardship for me to climb the stairs, do the cooking," she said. "We had a night person come to stay with us. All of a sudden, we decided it was time to make the change."

Life at the Jewish Home is indeed a change, but the two say they're slowly adjusting to this new phase in their 57 years together.

Now sharing a double room, the couple has traded some independence for safety and a chance to start over.

"Every day, there's something to do, something to see — concerts, art classes, dance classes," Rae said. "We're lonesome for what we left behind, but we're not lonesome since we got here."

Mike, a retired clothing salesman, misses the independence of his own car, their old circle of friends and his wife's cooking. But, he said, "people are nice here. We adjusted."

Administrators say it's relatively rare for a couple to choose to move together to a nursing home. Usually, the more disabled partner makes the move while the healthier mate stays at home.

But for the few couples choosing to stay together at a nursing home, the arrangement has the advantage of providing them with a built-in soulmate, said Diane Loeb, a social worker at the Jewish Home.

"For people who have been married many, many years, they want to have as much intimacy as possible," she said. "Living together in the same facility does that more than just visiting."

The arrangement has practical considerations as well. Harriet Finck, director of development and community relations at the Home for Jewish Parents in Danville, notes that transportation can become a big obstacle for the visiting spouse.

"It's a way for them to be close to each other as opposed to one of the spouses being in skilled nursing and the other living at home and not being able to visit easily," she said. Even if the spouses wind up living in separate areas of the nursing home because of different medical needs, "this way, it's just on the other side of the building."

There are potential downsides to living together in a nursing facility: downsizing from a house or apartment into a single room, losing a sense of privacy and having to adjust to a new community that's composed mostly of singles, Loeb said.

In addition, she said, "we don't want the person who' s the healthier person to continue in the caregiving role. We want the healthier person to integrate, make friends and be active. It's OK for them to branch out."

That's exactly what Anne Belden says she's doing at the Home for Jewish Parents.

At the urging of her daughter, Belden, 84, and her husband, Armand, 88, moved into the new Danville facility in August from their home in Tucson, Ariz.

While Anne Belden is healthy, her husband of 58 years has been in a nursing home for almost three years because of a stroke and dementia.

"In Tucson, I had to travel every day when I saw him," she said. "It was very tiring."

In their new arrangement, Belden has a one-bedroom apartment at the facility while her husband is cared for in the home's skilled nursing section.

"The thing that was so ideal is I'm in the same building with him," she said. "I can go visit with him anytime I want to."

Belden said she is also getting involved in social activities of her own. She takes an exercise class, plays bridge and is making new friends.

"I'm going to get involved in a lot of other things," she said.