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Book Review: Assisted Living: An Insider's View

Jeff Anderson
By Jeff AndersonSeptember 14, 2020
Book Review: Assisted Living: An Insider's View

Have ever been curious what it’s really like to live in an assisted living community? Have you wondered what really lies in the middle ground between the glossy brochures and the catastrophizing complaints? If so, “Assisted Living: An Insider’s View” is just the book for you.

Assisted Living: An Insider’s View

Retired psychologist and author, Carol Netzer, applies a remarkable ability to appraise and describe the people and situations around her to give readers special insight into the psychological factors of successful aging and moving to senior living. Based on her own experiences as an assisted living resident at two different communities, and her decades long career as a psychologist, she sheds light on how older adults can successfully transition to a senior community.

She combines anecdotes about fellow residents with helpful information about assisted living communities, how to choose them, and how to live in them — to create a book that’s simultaneously informative, entertaining and inspiring.

Netzer paints a generally benevolent picture of life at assisted living, acknowledging it’s the best option for many seniors. But at the same time, she doesn’t dance around the difficulties of aging and the transition to a senior living community.

In the balance of the article, we’ll quote from Netzer’s book to give you a flavor for her refreshing voice and unique perspective on life at assisted living.

Life in Assisted Living

Some of Netzer’s most interesting sections surround the social life at assisted living — for instance, the peculiar dining etiquette of many communities. She also describes the difficult making friends she encountered as a new resident.

“Assisted living is different from life ‘in the real world’ in other ways as well. I found that making friends at Cadbury was different from making friends earlier in life. A settled community has a center — family, work, old neighbors, an accustomed rhythm and cohesion — all of which are nurturing. In independent living, even at quality residences like Cadbury Commons or The Hallmark, there is no immediate community. It’s more like living in a good hotel. Residents are new to each other. Their ties are elsewhere. Many of them have disabilities that take most of their energy, and they reserve what’s left for settling in and taking care of their other maladies. As a result, the community of the old is loose and amorphous, a community in spite of itself, and many of its members feel no great urge to make contact with each other. Looking around for company comes after settling in and anxiously visiting the new doctor.”

Netzer is also particularly apt at describing individuals at the community in a way that makes them real. Her description of one couple at the community is worth quoting at length:

“Professor Palmer is a very tall, distinguished-looking man with gray hair and, I think, a slightly palsy, although he wheels his wife around energetically. He always wears a suit and a tie, unusual at Cadbury Commons. He never spoke at that breakfast and I never heard his voice at all during the time I was at Cadbury. His expression was always aloof and enigmatic, somewhere between mildly amused and pained, his patrician nose in the air. I don’t think he was scornful — not that. He seemed to be turning things over in his head most of the time and needed to be alone to do it. He is famous for having written the book on international conciliation and is known for it around the world, but he didn’t interfere in the minor tempests at the dinner table. He seemed like an isolate, except with his wife. I once saw him kiss her on the head, a spontaneous act of love that I found touching. The only thing interpersonal about him was that he was extremely attentive to her, and she was anything but conciliatory.

The Palmers ate dinner by themselves in a large empty room behind the dining room even though there were many other old Harvard professors in residence whom they knew well. Mrs. Palmer was in a wheelchair and easily ruffled. One night she wheeled herself furiously into the kitchen when she was not well served. Was it the pain of her condition that galvanized her or the waitress’s stupidity? Was she dotty? It is hard to tell when the aging are dotty. Age with its many trials, keeps the focus on the physical side more than the emotional. When they protest, the aged are sometimes only trying to hold things together because their bodies are failing. Or was Mrs. Palmer rude and unpleasant even before she got here? It’s hard to know, but I think that in a retirement home you have to give everybody a pass because you might be next.”

Descriptions like this keep the pages turning, and at 168 pages, her book is just the right length.

An Insider’s View on Aging

Netzer relates one episode where the community van takes a group of residents to visit Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau lived in isolation for two years and wrote the American masterpiece “Walden.” When the residents arrive at the site, they aren’t permitted to leave the van because many of the residents couldn’t get around well.

The moment highlights the separation from society that older people sometimes experience and feel, as well as the sometimes bureaucratic nature of senior living providers:

“Walden Pond is an example where I felt the difference between Real Life and life here. We drove right up to the pond, but not getting out of it to walk around it or see Thoreau’s cabin as I might have done in real life makes me feel keenly that I am outside of everyday life forever.”

While Netzer was discouraged by this event, she makes the most of her assisted living experience, and looks for the upside in every moment:

“I learned some valuable lessons about human nature from the life I observed at Cadbury Commons. I was awed by the resilience of the old, especially those who coped easily with their disabilities or those of their spouses. I especially admired the spouses of the Alzheimer’s patients who were constant, patient and loving.”

A Book for Seniors Making the Transition to Assisted Living

Netzer’s writing is candid and blunt, but also eternally optimistic. She highlights stories of fellow residents who exhibit resilience, and compares them to those around her who, in her words, “regress” during or after their transition to assisted living. In her introduction to a chapter about regression she writes:

“The pull towards regression is strong in assisted living facilities where there are numerous aging and informed people who know that this will be their last home. The pace is slower, the demands are fewer and many needs, like meals, laundry, transportation, entertainment and outings, are provided for. Your apartment is cleaned weekly, the linen is changed, and someone will come to hang pictures, make repairs or change a lightbulb. At Cadbury Commons, for an ordinary check-up the doctor came to you! At the Hallmark and other quality residences, a nurse and doctor would keep regular office hours in the residence. When they aren’t present, somebody is on duty throughout the night and there is an emergency cord by your bed. There are motion sensors in your apartment, and if there is no movement in the early morning, a staff member will come to investigate. In most assisted living facilities, you are safer than you would be in your own home. You are also free to do exactly as you please, a condition unknown to many residents since they were children.”

While acknowledging the potential for residents to regress, she arms them with the information needed to make the transition easier. She talks about the importance of not becoming isolated, the immense benefits of exercise, and other strategies to maintain resilience after a move to assisted living:

“The old are not often seen as resilient, but many of the old whom I have met at Cadbury and The Hallmark have shown remarkable resilience. Milton at the Cadbury, who is in his nineties, is a prankster, a lover, a reader, sociable and a walker. Harvey, who is frail himself, attends to his wife who has Alzheimer’s and is interested in politics, people and classical music. Bill has an enormous and varied collection of 78 rpm records, goes to music conventions out-of-town, and gives concerts for the residents. At The Hallmark, Anne Moses Shows films on ballet regularly. She has an endless store. Ruth runs the book club and the new residents’ committee. Minnie figures out bus routes and goes to museums all over the city. Sylvia Weiss, now 100, still goes to filmed operas everywhere they are shown and loves to shop. Eva gives painting and sculpture lessons. Lilyana has written a memoir of her life in Czechoslovakia. Roy goes to seminars at Poets House a few blocks away. Sy runs a well-attended group on politics. And there are many more like them who show resilience after their move to assisted living by keeping up the lifelong interests they had at home. Resilience and adaptability may be the best defenses of all.”

If the book has any weaknesses at all, they lie in its organization and, in a few instances, some redundancy. Other than that, the book is faultless.

As one reviewer wrote, “This is an excellent book: well written by an articulate and keen observer of the world around her. Carol Netzer has taken the later years of her career as a psychologist and her situation as an assisted living resident to write about what it means to be in her shoes — and in the shoes of the other residents. I don’t know of any other book that provides an insider’s view.”

Assisted Living: An Insider’s View” is the perfect book for seniors who are nearing the point of moving to a senior living community, or who have recently moved. The adult children of seniors who are facing the transition to senior living may also find the book helps them to understand what their parents are going through, and what they can expect when they move.

To this day, Carol Netzer is writing about her life at assisted living. Her words can be found at her blog:

“Assisted Living: An Insider’s View” can be purchased on It’s available in paperback ($7.99) and as a Kindle edition ($3.99).

Jeff Anderson
Jeff Anderson
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