Bobby Musker and Niambi Smith
"Enjoy yourself while you’re still in the pink." This is the sentiment of many who, despite their age, have made a conscious effort not to retire from life. And certain communities have helped facilitate a better mind-body transition.
Linda Whalen, 67, and Dolores Luna, 70, are residents of Linden House, an independent living establishment located in a residential neighborhood of Wicker Park. They know many their age who have become withdrawn, but their social lives have distinguished them from their counterparts.
Luna moved into Linden House five years ago after making a few attempts to live with her family. It’s not that her children and their spouses became burdened by her. On the contrary, she felt as if they hindered her fun.
“I told my children, 'Don’t stop your life for me. Do whatever and I’ll do whatever,'” she said with a grin. “I like to do and come and go as I please...To do for myself, you know?”
Since her arrival, Luna has made it a point to engage other residents who were unhappy with their circumstances. As a way to introduce herself, she brought puzzles.
“I showed some of the ladies here how to play Sudoku, and now instead of coming down to watch telenovelas, they sit doing their Sudoku puzzles together,” she said excitedly.
Being one of the few residents with a car, she runs errands for those who aren’t as independent or who don’t have the luxury of visitors. She’s glad to help, and this is understood even with the language barrier.
“‘We have family, but I’m your family. We’re family here,’ I tell them. ‘We may come from different nationalities and all, but I’m your sister,’” she recalled.
Another member of her adopted family is Chica, her brown Chihuahua. Luna adopted her around the time she moved in. She’s been a comfort to Luna. And after experiencing her share of hardship, she’s learned to embrace the lightheartedness of their relationship. She spoke plainly and without complaint regarding her struggles. Over the years she buried two husbands and had to work multiple jobs to raise her eight children. And recently, a stroke has left half of her face paralyzed.
“Don’t put your mind on what’s going wrong in your life,” she said. “You have to face life as it comes.”
Whalen is another resident with a four-legged companion, though Maggie is just visiting. The dog belongs to a couple who were once neighbors of Whalen’s. Once Whalen became legally blind from a case of diabetic macular edema, she moved to Linden House. Now she is the dog’s caretaker while the couple is at work.
“Maggie keeps me hopping,” she said. “That’s the wonderful thing about having her around.”
Her blindness has prevented her from working, but not much else. She walks Maggie daily and for the rest of the week will attend mass at nearby St. Aloysius Catholic Church, knit christening blankets and take the bus to the grocery store.
Independent living is seen as a step in the continuum of care, with assisted living being the next step. Sacred Heart Convent, a home for retired nuns in Wilmette is one of these.
When nuns aren’t mentally or physically able to perform their duties within the church, they are sent to live at the convent, which is funded and staffed by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. This is the last transition they will experience.
“The average age of our residents is about 85,” said Sister Caroline Schafer, an administrator for the home. “We have many sisters from many different orders and states in the home.”
While these sisters are uprooted from their lifelong homes and friends, Schafer assures that the transition from one convent to another isn’t difficult. In essence, it’s a different community with similar fellowship. So while they are less mobile and capable than those at the Linden House, their social identity is still intact. They still belong, and they still matter.
“The community is so strong here and we have so many community activities that the transition is easy,” she said with a hopeful tone.