Adventures in atypical apartment living

In this very early post, I promised to write about how we found an apartment for Nathan when he turned 18. What follows is the story of how our family handled this transition to independent living.  It involved some risk and significant expense – but the progress we’ve seen in Nathan’s self-reliance has been worth it.

The apartment search for Nathan took place in the summer after he graduated from high school. To give some perspective of what else was going on at the time: our regional center had decided he was ineligible for their services, as described here; the Dept. of Rehabilitation was in the process of deciding whether he qualified for their employment assistance, as described here; and we’d just started the application process for SSI benefits from Social Security, as described here.

Nathan wasn’t interested in looking for a place to live. I was forcing the issue, mainly because I felt that being on his own would help him transition to adulthood (= “grow up”). We also wanted his younger brother Alan to have a more stable home environment for his last years in high school, without his brother continually at home.

But would moving out be too much of a stressful change for Nathan? He had already told us that life was barely tolerable. If it got worse, suicide was his out. While this was a huge concern, ultimately I felt that our home life shouldn’t be forever warped with tension and turmoil because of something Nathan might do if he could no longer live with us.

So that summer I looked at rental listings, called some landlords, and visited the more promising apartments. My search was a balancing act between “low rent” and “safe environment.” Also, we wanted a place far enough away that he couldn’t just show up on our doorstep, but close enough that we could get to him quickly in an emergency (Nathan has never learned to drive, and doesn’t want a bicycle).

Understandably, most landlords I talked to were reluctant to rent to an 18-year-old unemployed male whose parents were doing the legwork for him. A couple of landlords seemed agreeable, but the units they showed us had one or more deal-breakers (such as no bathtub: probably due to sensory issues, Nathan is not a shower-taker).

I must have looked at 15 or 20 listings over several weeks before seeing a “For Rent” sign on an old apartment building with 6 units. The building was not too far from where my husband and I work (which was 5 miles from home). The rent was at the high end of our range, but the neighborhood was pretty good. The landlord agreed to show us the unit, and it met all of our criteria.

Naturally, the landlord (whom I’ll call “Craig”) asked about Nathan. We explained that he is very quiet, no drugs, drinking or smoking, but he has Aspergers and needed to become more independent.

We waited while Craig absorbed this. He slowly started nodding his head. “Okay, I get what you’re talking about: I was a Psych major in college. I’m willing to give this young man a chance, but I’d like to meet him before we make it a done deal.”

If it had been a TV show, the music would have started swelling in the background. Things were looking good, at last!

We met Craig at the apartment again a few days later, with Nathan, who was his usual expressionless self. He answered Craig’s questions as briefly as possible. The landlord was satisfied to proceed with “our little experiment” (as he termed it), and my husband signed the month-to-month rental agreement.

We moved Nathan in a few weeks later, giving him hand-me-downs, and housewares from the dollar store, for essential supplies. We did not provide him with a TV or a computer, but he had his handheld video game system. Nathan was pretty quiet while we packed, moved, and unloaded. When at last we were ready to leave him at his new place, he busied himself placing his books on the bookshelf, not making eye contact with us as we said goodbye and closed the door.

By previous agreement, Nathan had an overnighter at home two days later. I thought that might have been too early, but it turned out to be a wise choice – with a longer wait, too much negativity and anxiety might have built up. As it was, Nathan was proud he had lived on his own for a couple of days. He told us he didn’t like his apartment, but didn’t fight us about going back to it the next day.

We developed a routine where he could come home with us after work on Wednesdays, use the TV and computer until bedtime, and get a ride with us back to his apartment the following morning. As time went on, we’d also pick him up on the weekend for a day visit home.

After several months of this, Nathan asked for more time at home during his mid-week visit. I said, “To do that, you’ll have to learn to ride the bus.” He did. That allowed him to catch a bus in the morning, be at our house most of the day, and either ride back with us in the morning or catch a bus later. It was another step forward in Nathan’s self-sufficiency.

In the first couple of weeks on his own Nathan didn’t go out of his apartment much, but eventually he got into the habit of walking to the library (to read their manga collection), the YMCA (where he could watch TV while using the treadmill), and even the video game store and the bookstore at the shopping plaza a few miles away. Sometimes he’d take a walk at night if he was having trouble falling asleep. One benefit from all this walking, which wouldn’t have happened if he’d lived at home, was that the exercise did his mind and body good. We believe that over time it has helped stabilize his mood.

Our routine for Nathan included a weekly visit to the grocery store. We’d give him a set amount of money, then wait outside while he bought the food he wanted. What he buys is mostly packaged food and sweets – the only cooking skills required are turning on the oven or boiling a pot of water. (We try to provide healthier food for him during his home visits.)

The grocery store closest to his apartment is about a mile away. After a time, we proposed buying him a folding grocery cart – known in my family of origin as an “Ethel” – so that he could go get his groceries on his own. He agreed, and this arrangement has worked well. Having worn out the wheels on his first one, he’s now on his second “Ethel.”

Our makeshift system for independent living has worked pretty well, but it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. For one thing, Craig got miffed when Nathan refused to make eye contact or give an answer to his cheery “HI NATHAN, HOW’S IT GOING BUDDY?” We had to explain that dialing it down would get better results – and over time, it has, to the point where Nathan now politely telephones Craig if he needs something. We also know that Craig is concerned about complaints from the other tenants (all of them are young adults with jobs). So far, no one has said anything bad, and some of his neighbors even invite him to parties and so forth. Nathan doesn’t attend, but we appreciate the gesture.

The biggest problem has been Nathan’s lack of cleanliness. While living at home, Nathan had done cleaning chores, but now he refused to apply those skills in his own place. I only went into his apartment a handful of times in the first few years, but each time, I was appalled at what I saw. Among the untidy offenses: papers, cardboard boxes, and crumbs everywhere; his psychiatric meds randomly strewn about; unwashed dishes and utensils, used over and over; boogers wiped on the walls and door frames; and a kitchen sink that was no longer white.

Reminders and nagging about cleaning did no good. However, two incidents brought about improvements. The first incident was a random cockroach rustling through the papers under his bed one night at 3 a.m. This freaked Nathan out. (I know it did, because I got his freaked-out phone call at 3:30 a.m.) With my help the next day, Nathan rounded up all the papers and boxes from the floor. (Additionally, in an act of true motherly love, I searched for and killed the intruding insect.) In any event, Nathan has never again blanketed the floor with papers.

The second incident was around the same time, when Craig and his handyman entered the apartment for a minor maintenance task. Upset by the sights and smells, Craig told me that unless we got the place cleaned up and kept it in better shape, Nathan would have to leave.

By this time, Nathan had grown accustomed to his apartment and didn’t want to relocate. So we did a major clean-up, and now I clean the place once a month. (Conversely, to earn computer time or extra pocket money, Nathan helps clean our house – and does a good job. For some reason, he finds this more tolerable than cleaning his own place.) Because his worst habits have fallen away over time, there has been less cleaning for me to do on my visits. This is a very good thing.

There have been other changes since we started “our little experiment”. For one thing, Nathan now receives SSI benefits. The monthly check pretty much covers his rent and food. Yay! Another change is that a few years ago my husband and I moved to the town we work in. As a consequence, Nathan is now able to walk to our house. He has matured a lot and respects the boundaries we’ve set about coming over. It’s been working out fine.

For the most part I am relaxed about Nathan’s living situation, proud of the advances he’s made, and hopeful that more growing up is yet to come. By no means am I suggesting that what we did is what every family can or should do. We winged it, and stumbled upon a workable solution for us. Still, I am aware that we might need housing alternatives in the future if something goes off the rails.





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About janet565

I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. My profession involves maps and geography. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....

6 responses to “Adventures in atypical apartment living”

  1. Bette Barkley says :

    Once again my friend, a very interesting blog entry. Glad that this worked out.


    • janet565 says :

      Thanks Bette! We are glad too. I’m also glad to have learned about the existence of programs that prepare atypical young people for independent living, and hope to blog about them as I learn more …


  2. Lori A says :

    Janet, thank you for giving this glimpse into your experience of helping your son gain independence. I really appreciate how patient yet firm you are with him in finding a workable solution. We will be at this stage with our son before long and I hope to follow your example.
    Thanks again for sharing your adventure. It’s really encouraging to see what our kids are capable of if gently pushed out of their comfort zone.


    • janet565 says :

      Thanks so much for your comments, Lori! Along the way we had our doubts, and differences of opinion, and naysayers chiming in (that we were being too lenient, or too hardhearted), and compromises to make. (We taught both of our sons the value of making compromises, and now they can sometimes negotiate circles around us!) Overall you get a sense of “I can push my kiddo this far, but no farther – for now.”


  3. lynnkelleyauthor says :

    You and your hubby are awesome parents. I think it’s wonderful that you’re sharing your experience with others. Many don’t take the time to leave comments, but I’m sure you have plenty of folks who read your posts and that the info you’re sharing is helping them work through their own situations. Excellent post, St. Janet! 🙂


    • janet565 says :

      Aw shucks, Lynn! Thanks for that! I’d love to hear from other parents on how they’ve handled the transition. We can learn from others’ successes, as well as the decisions that didn’t turn out so well…


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