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Survival of the Fittest

You're packed up and ready to go. But is your new home ready?

As moving day approached, we engaged in our usual rituals, knowing in the back of our minds that it would be our last day for all of us to live in my parents' home of 28 years. Even though I would be creating a home base in their house after they moved out, it would not be the same. Similar, maybe—but not the same.

The smallest details stood out to me: There was the nighttime treat for Jackson taken from the red tin that always sits on the kitchen counter near the sink. The turning off of all the lights in the same places they had been for 28 years. Dad adjusting the thermostats to a cooler nighttime temperature, asking at what temperature I wanted my thermostat set. Dad reading to Mom before the lights went out—a time when I like to join them, as that's when we've seemed to have our most significant conversations.

I told them I honestly had some fears and doubts about this move, and I asked about theirs. We talked about all the moves they'd made in their lifetime together, and the fact that even in their younger years, they had never lived in an apartment building. They'd moved many times—to Indiana, Ohio, Germany, Virginia—for jobs and military deployment and education. But this move was different. It signaled a different kind of change in their lives. They so impressed me with their willingness to embrace change, fears and all.

I had fears, too, that it would all be so different in the new apartment. Could we reinvent the spirit of my parents' home?

I went to sleep that night knowing that it would be the last time in that house that I would do so with the secure understanding that Mom and Dad were just across the house in their usual place. All my life, that had given me a sense that all was right with the world.

I relived countless family gatherings at the house. I thought of the times my parents comforted our broken hearts, celebrated our triumphs, and provided a safe place for us, their children and grandchildren. Even at the ripe old age of 48, I've still found comfort in knowing my parents are there and things are "the same." I thought about how brave they are to make this move—how it could make their lives much better, or much more complicated, or possibly even worse. I hoped for the best.

Stuffing Lives Into a Moving Truck

I got my wish! The moving day high was a balmy 100 degrees. The movers arrived at 8 a.m. We drank coffee, pointed out what to load, and watched the nostalgia go out the door. Dad took Jackson for his last walk around the neighborhood, and although he hid it well, I could tell he was a little choked up. He's taken thousands of dog walks in this neighborhood over the years.

At the last minute, Dad realized he hadn't told the neighbors they were moving. We visited with Joey, the next-door neighbor, whom my parents had watched grow up from the time he was a toddler. He's now a mature college student. We said our good-byes—while reassuring the neighbors that my parents would be back, since I would be setting up housekeeping in their home.

By noon, the truck was loaded. It's always amazing to me that a life can be loaded into a truck in a matter of hours. "Push-pull, click-click," my dad said; everything went like clockwork, perfectly as planned.

Until we arrived at the apartment.

Lesson Learned
Two days before the move, we had visited the apartment and found there was still a great deal of work to be done. We had been assured it would be ready by moving day. Although I had some snippets of doubt, it really didn't occur to me that the place might not be finished for us. That just couldn’t happen in a community like this for older adults, right? Wrong.

As we pulled into the parking lot of the continuing care retirement community, we noticed that the picket fence for Jackson had been finished! Good news. We confidently walked into the apartment.

The first things I saw were two sinks, a drop cloth, plumbing fixtures, and tools on the floor of the dining-room area. Of course, all were in the way of where our movers needed to bring in boxes and place furniture. The bathrooms displayed gaping holes where the vanities should have been. The kitchen had everything but the kitchen sink—literally. A worker was in the process of installing it.

My parents were deflated, I was furious, and my sister, Susie, was trying to be the peacemaker. As I went into my "pit-bull advocate" mode (as she described it), I called the marketing people who had assisted us. Neither were working that day—a Saturday. One of their colleagues came to the apartment and didn't know what hit her. She had not been involved in the prep for us and was thrust into the situation.

After listening to my anger boil over, the marketing staff person basically told us it wasn't her fault and that she wasn't sure what had happened. She offered Mom and Dad a stay in a guest suite that night, and she gave us a free lunch.

The Power of Adaptability

The worker assured us that the kitchen sink would be done that day and the bathrooms the next. After my sister and I discussed the options with my parents, they decided they would rather stay in their new place and sleep in their own bed that night.

The transition was difficult enough, and it would be more confusing for them to be in a strange place without their familiar things. My parents wanted some semblance of their home that night. So they decided to rough it without bathroom sinks or vanities. I believe adaptability is one of the most important characteristics to have for successful aging, and I have to say, my parents were scoring quite high on the adaptability scale that day!

The movers unloaded the truck, breaking a ceiling fan and a pane of glass in an antique cabinet in the process, but those could be fixed. They were patient with the mess in the apartment and did a great job. My large diagram of the apartment layout came in handy, as it helped the movers put things into the right places faster without needing us to tell them every step of the way. At least one thing was going right!

As soon as the movers were gone, my sister and I started unpacking. Our goal was to have the two most important places set up that night to help my parents get into their routines immediately: the bedroom and the family room (with the bed in one and their chairs, the couch, and the TV in the other). My parents' routines really center around those two places, and the bathroom of course, but there was not much we could do there!

We also wanted Jackson to be comfortable so that we could prevent any behavior problems that can result from this much change. He had discovered and used the doggie door already and had found his toys in his favorite hiding place under my parents' bed where I had placed them.

A New Normal

That evening, Susie and I went back to the house to fill her car with items we hadn't put on the truck, such as clothes and groceries. As we left the apartment, Mom and Dad, exhausted, were already settling into their Saturday night routine. Lawrence Welk was entertaining them on the TV (I had the cable guy come earlier in the day), and Dad was singing along. As I glanced back at them, relaxing in their recliners with Jackson happily ensconced on Dad's lap, it occurred to me that a new normal was taking shape, and although we all felt a bit pummeled by the brutality of moving day, in the end, we'd all survive The Big Move.

I'm not the least bit ashamed to admit that I sat down and had a big, fat cry. The stresses of the past few weeks had built up, and it was time for me to grieve in the way that I needed to. So I let it all out. In my heart, I so didn't want to be doing this. I wanted things to stay the same. I wanted my parents to stay the same. The house seemed so dead and empty without them; at that moment, I couldn't imagine staying there. It would be so hard to be in the house without them.

But once I'd had my big cry, a calm came over me. I reeled my thoughts back in and knew that the best thing I could do for my parents was to not hold on too tightly to the past. That night was definitely a turning point for me. My parent's home isn't about the walls around them, the furniture, the keepsakes, or even the family heirlooms. It's about them. And wherever they are, that will be their home.

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