A Quiz Involving Two Polish Ladies

Sofia Kosko, 90, is frail, needs help with her medications, has difficulty getting around and is unable to cook for herself. Irene Szelazek, 82, is spry, independent, likes to go for a walk each day, visiting favourite Polish restaurants, and helps the infirm.

Question: Which woman lives in a nursing home and which in her own apartment? The answer, surprisingly, is that Sofia, the more infirm of the two women, maintains her independence in her own apartment, while Irene resides in a long-term care nursing home. And while Irene represents the way things used to be in Canada’s homes for the aged, Sofia represents the way things will be in the future.

Both women live under the same roof – at Copernicus Lodge, a beautiful high-rise seniors’ residence in a Polish district in the west end of Toronto.

Irene has lived in the long-term care facility at Copernicus for three years – ever since she fell and cracked her pelvis coming home from the dentist’s.

“I could not stay on my own at home,” says Irene, a widow. So a comfortable little room was found for her at Copernicus. Gradually she got better, was able to discard her walker, and today she actually helps take care some of the far more infirm residents, many with dementia, in the long-term care section of Copernicus.

Sofia, who trained as a scientist in Poland and at the Sorbonne, in Paris, is also a widow and gave up her Ottawa bungalow in 1983 for a comfortable one-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor at Copernicus. Since then, she acknowledges, her health has declined dramatically. She sometimes needs morphine for rheumatism pain, has fallen several times, and is unable to get downstairs unaided for meals in the Copernicus dining room.

So how come she’s still in her apartment while Irene, able to get about, is in the nursing home?

Barbara Nytko, the residence administrator, shows us an elaborate chart that breaks down daily living functions -– preparing food, taking pills, getting dressed, going to the toilet unaided and so on –- that determine the kind of care a resident or tenant needs. The real eyeopener of the last few years, she says, is just how many people like Sofia can remain in their apartments with the help of “independent living assistants.”

A cheery worker brings Sofia her breakfast at 8:15 – “a lovely breakfast,” she says. She’s taken down to the dining room in a wheelchair for her other two meals (she pays $15 a day for meals), her laundry and cleaning are done, and a support worker can come in to help her with her medications. If she falls, a Lifeline alarm around her neck brings help running.

A few years ago, a nursing home would have been the only answer for Sofia. But, says Nytko, long-term care is only an option now when it’s unsafe for an older person to be on their own -– usually because of mental confusion.

As a result, there are tenants as old as 97 maintaining their independence in the 150 Copernicus apartments.

“I wanted to be independent,” says Sofia, who is often a spokesperson at residents meetings. Especially, she says, she didn’t want to be a burden for her two children, both doctors. “Here I am in my own place; I can turn the television on when I want. I will stay here as long as possible.”

Perhaps, says Nytko, who is acting as occasional translator, “you can always stay here.” Irene, in the long-term care section, is no less satisfied. With her own room, and well enough to get about -– she even reads the lesson at mass some days — she feels she too has retained her independence.

In the past, Canada’s nursing homes contained many people as able as Irene. Now, with funding and other pressures -– and supportive housing and home care providing a better alternative — there are fewer and fewer.

Nytko admits it’s hard to justify the expense of allowing Irene to remain in the high-cost, long-term care facility. But, at 82, no one’s likely to try and move her now. She enjoys the morning exercise program, the crafts, and helping out, and has no desire for an apartment. “If you’re sitting on your own in your room, you can go crazy,” she says.