OPEN END-O: Old Lives Matter


Ellen Endo headshot2By ELLEN ENDO

(Published Oct. 15, 2015)

Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. Once you’re aboard, there’s nothing you can do. 

— Golda Meir (1898-1978), former Prime Minister of Israel

My mother thinks she lives at Keiro. Let me explain.

In 1961, when a small group of visionary Japanese American businessmen announced plans to purchase the Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles with the goal of creating a senior care facility for the aging Issei, my father was among those who thought that Keiro was a damn good idea.

As a Nisei born in the United States but raised in Japan, the notion of living out his old age in a Japanese-infused setting shimmered in his head like an enchanted dream. Dad passed away in 1996 at the age of 80, never having experienced the Keiro style of caregiving.

However, Dad had talked enough about a future at Keiro that Mom bought into the vision as well. When she was diagnosed with dementia in 2011 and no longer capable of living alone, she insisted that I find her a retirement home rather than choosing to live with family. For more than 10 years, she had worked on staff for an Alhambra assisted-living facility and, therefore, knew what to expect.

I found a placement service online. The counselor assigned to us happened to be Japanese American, a Yonsei. She asked if she should check out Keiro. Although it was common knowledge that Keiro was filled to capacity, I told her to go ahead and check anyway.

She recalled that Keiro’s marketing director “pretty much laughed at me and said they have a year-long wait list to get in. I don’t understand…how does an organization with wait lists not stay afloat?”

With the counselor’s help, arrangements were made to visit six different facilities. I narrowed the choices down to two, and finally picked a privately run facility in the San Fernando Valley. My mother loved her spacious private room. She loved it so much that she almost never left the room.

The dementia led her to imagine that she was at Keiro and that the attendants were Japanese. Whenever I prepared to take her to the on-site hairdresser, Mom would ask, “Is she Japanese?” Truth is, none of the attendants, nurses, food preparers, office staff is of Japanese ancestry. But if it comforts her to think they are, it’s fine with me.

A couple of years ago, I was talking to a friend about her father, a Keiro resident. “He doesn’t like his roommate,” she lamented, “but a private room will cost so much more.” That’s when I was shocked to learn that a shared room at Keiro costs about 30% more than my mother’s private room at a for-profit facility.

I don’t pretend to understand the economics of Keiro’s current situation. Since its founding, Keiro has grown into a sprawling, multi-service facility. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

Many of our community’s nonprofit organizations were built upon and rely on the kindness of others. By “others” I mean Nisei. And by “kindness” I mean donations. With the passing of the Nisei, survival in the 21st century has created serious challenges for nonprofits. Addressing these challenges requires aggressive leadership and perhaps new business plans.

The big difference is that individual lives are at stake here—about 600 lives by my count.

In July of 2014, the Ensign Group, Inc. announced it had agreed to purchase Keiro’s 300-bed skilled nursing facility, 98-bed South Bay Keiro Nursing Home, 127-unit retirement home, and 90-bed Intermediate Care Facility. At the time, the Mission Viejo-based Ensign Group pledged to continue and advance Keiro’s tradition of culturally sensitive care.

Sometime between then and now, the Ensign deal, which was predicted to close by the fourth quarter of 2014, fell through.

On Thursday, Oct. 15, 6-8 p.m., at Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, Keiro will hold its first public meeting. Keiro Senior HealthCare Board Chair Gary Kawaguchi and President/CEO Shawn Miyake will be there as well as prospective buyers, Pacifica Companies and Aspen Skilled Healthcare, Inc.

Change is never easy, but it’s inevitable. What’s disappointing is that the Keiro leadership could not come up with a workable solution short of dumping the whole place.

It’s good to see the community standing up to be heard on this issue. Without the community’s collective voice, Keiro may one day exist as it does for my mother — only in her mind.

The Keiro controversy reminds me that I am a card-carrying member of the elder generation —AARP card, of course. Here are signs of aging:

– Lately, it has bothered me that it costs more to park my car than to run it.

– Food tastes better when you qualify for the senior discount and having dinner at 4 p.m. doesn’t seem like such a bad idea anymore.

– I am considering taking up golf because I’m don’t feel like running up to a net.

– I’m old enough to have seen and heard everything. If only I could remember it all.

– It takes three boxes of candles to wish me happy birthday.

– Drivers always seem to be passing me on the freeway.

– I wouldn’t say that I’m racist, but white food has become my enemy: rice, bread, ice cream, pasta, potatoes.

At my age, I don’t even buy green bananas.

— George Burns (1896-1996), comedian, on turning 100 years old

Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.



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