A Guide to Aging in Milwaukee

Our how-to package for key elder-care decisions.

By Claire Hanan

In the last three years, Tom* and his siblings have placed both of their parents in senior living communities. His father, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, was the first to need outside care, and so the family searched for an assisted living community that was nearby and that they could afford. When they finally settled on one and moved their father in, they learned that this particular community wasn’t equipped to deal with their father’s Alzheimer’s-induced “little thunderstorms,” Tom says. Eventually, their father was asked to leave.

So the siblings and their mother started searching again to find a community that would be more willing to medicate their father when his fits of anger necessitated it. They eventually found that community and, Tom says, there wasn’t anything bad about it. But Tom, who lives in Muskego, felt sad seeing his father confined to a wheelchair as a result of his medication. “We didn’t want to do it that way, but we were running out of options,” he says.

A short time later, his father passed away. 

In the last year, Tom has gone through a similar process with his mother. The siblings realized it wasn’t possible for her to remain in her own home or move into one of theirs. Tom’s sister took charge of the search for a community, and again the family settled on an assisted living home that is close to the siblings and within the family’s price range. Tom says his mother “loves the facility, and loves the room she’s staying in – she just doesn’t like being alone.”

Even though her assisted living community is quite large, he says, “she doesn’t like participating in a lot of events. She doesn’t want to move, either, and she thinks anywhere else we’d move her to would be worse.”

It’s a problem without an easy solution, and Tom’s voice conveys the last few years of accumulated frustration.“No one is ready for this,” he says of the process of finding care for his elderly parents. “All of sudden, you feel the need, and then there’s this panicky scramble.”

The staffers at this magazine have been discussing the “panicky scrambles” we and our family members have undergone to care for those aging around us. What we didn’t know was whether others felt the same. So we polled you, our readers, and found out that many had spent hours researching living options for parents and family, and still felt like they wish they would have known more. Others weren’t fully aware of the responsibilities of becoming a parent’s caregiver. And even more were surprised by the costs of growing old. 

In the next 15 pages, we’re hoping to offer, at the very least, a starting point not just for those on the cusp of making significant elder care decisions, but for the younger generation – yes, the 20- and 30-somethings – whose foresight might save their own children some difficulty down the road. 

And we’re offering this information in a number of different ways. From the practical decisions that accompany aging – like living wills and power of attorney documents – to selecting assisted living communities and ways to identify the elusive mental signs of aging, we hope to provide a thoughtful starting place for these very personal, complicated and multilayer decisions. 

We’re also discussing the financial options. The Greatest Generation “would have holes in their shoes before their kids went shoeless,” says Pam Foti, co-owner of Vesta Senior Network, a senior care consulting company. But while those are honorable intentions, she says, it could mean those pre-baby boomers are not as prepared for their own long-term care as they should be. 

“They want to leave a legacy for the kids,” she says. “They don’t think they should pay their hard-earned money on long-term care.” That’s not always a viable solution.  

When choosing to move a parent to a senior living community, a starting place for a parent or a spouse should be addressing their needs, says Foti. What people should understand, she says, “is their financial situation, what their loved one or their own care needs are, and what’s important to them or their loved ones,” such as a calendar full of activities or the ability to keep a beloved pet. 

After identifying the parent’s or spouse’s needs, it’s time to have a conversation about how to address those needs. Sometimes, as Ann Christenson details in her personal story on Page 42, that conversation is one of the hardest parts of the process. And if that’s the case, Foti says, consulting a doctor to take part in that conversation can be helpful. The parents of “sandwich generation” members, which we discuss on Page 44, are so respectful of authority that it can be hard for those parents to take care advice from their children. 

“We’ve been saying go talk to the doctor, then the doctor can say [to the parent], ‘It’s time to get some help.’”  

After a loved one’s needs are established and a general course is decided upon, it’s time to start matching those needs with a level of care. And if a family decides that a parent must be moved into some sort of assisted living environment, one of the most important questions to ask of the community is: At what point do you ask a parent to move or leave? asks Pat Bruce, program director of Interfaith’s Family Caregiver Support Network.

“Even if an assisted living place is licensed for a level of care,” she says, “they might not choose to provide that level of care.” 

For Lori*, who lives on Milwaukee’s East Side, determining the tenure of a community’s staff was a crucial part of the decision for her mother’s care. Her mother, after open heart surgery, suddenly found herself in need of an assisted living environment with only a list from the hospital of a handful of places. The first community Lori’s mother moved into had a convenient location for family and friends, but, Lori says, she “always felt like there was new staff.” Had she been better prepared, she says, she would have asked more specific questions about the staff. 

Still, Stephanie Stein, the director of Milwaukee County’s Department on Aging says, “Seeing [a community] yourself and asking questions about what’s most important to you are the best ways to choose.” 

In the next three pages, we provide localized federal data that can act as a foundation in your search for a community. You’ll likely find Milwaukee has an abundance of options for every level of care and price range.But while Milwaukee’s nursing home and assisted living communities have been growing steadily since the 1980s, there is still a large percentage of the population that lives in their own homes for as long as possible. And the Milwaukee area has plenty of resources for this, too, like senior centers and counseling services, which can make staying in your own home a less-isolating solution.

“We complain a lot about our taxes in Wisconsin,” says Bruce. But because of these taxes, she says, “we also get phenomenal aging services.”

*Names have been changed.

More from “Handle with Care”

We Have to Talk

Discussing assisted living with your parents is harder than it looks. By Ann Christenson

No Place Like Home

We asked some local experts in elder law and health insurance how to pay for nursing homes and assisted living. The options are precious but few. By Matt Hrodey

Checks and Balances

There are number of legal precautions to take in your later years. And they don’t have to be painful. By Kurt Chandler

Sensing a Pattern

The indicators are not always obvious, but they could signal mental distress in an aging loved one. By Dan Shafer

Spreading Thin 

There’s a growing number of adults caring for their parents and their own children. The experience can be all-consuming. By Jen Bradley

The Man Who Came to Dinner

A dutiful daughter invites her aging father to live with her family, and the stress level rises for all. By Jon Anne Willow

Sound Prescription

A groundbreaking local study analyzes the effects of music on our memories. By Carolyn Kott Washburne

Collective Memories 

Milwaukee is trying to become more dementia-friendly, allowing the aging to live at home longer. By Howie Magner


‘Handle with Care’ is the cover story for the September, 2014, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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