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Helping Aging Parents Move

Here's how you can help them make the change.

En español | My wise sister Karen once told me that change is messy, no matter how much you plan for it. I can testify to that! As my siblings and I have helped my parents make "The Big Move" from their home of 28 years, my family has undergone monumental change.

It has been messy.

See also: Tips to Rightsize and Redesign Your Home for the Life You Want to Live Now.

I'm writing this column to tell you about the move, in hopes that our story will help the millions of you out there who are going through similar situations. Sometimes we can learn from each other's mistakes instead of making them ourselves.

My parents, Patricia, age 83 this month, and Robert, age 86 next month, decided it was time to move into a community geared for supporting and assisting older adults. Dad was tired of caring for the house and yard. A more urgent reason—and the common impetus for older adults moving into alternative housing—was that Mom was recently hospitalized after a bad case of the flu, which had weakened her. This illness and a stroke she had 20 years ago left her in need of more help. But the clincher was when Dad had to stop driving. At that point, he declared vehemently, "If I can't drive, then we are ready to move—like TOMORROW." And so the bedlam began.

During the transition, it was clear that Mom wasn't as excited about The Big Move as Dad was. She loved her home and felt moving would be a huge loss. She acknowledged that Dad had most of the responsibility for keeping up the house, but her heart still had a hard time letting go. Sensitivity to her viewpoint was essential; no one wants to be "told" she has to move. We allowed her time to get used to the idea, and that made a big difference emotionally.

The Caregiver's World of Pressure
It was, perhaps, one of the toughest choices I've ever had to participate in making. I have worked in the field of aging for 25 years, so perhaps I know too much. I was fully aware of the repercussions of my parents winding up in the wrong place. As a baby boomer and caregiver, I want the very best for my Mom and Dad; they deserve it.

While it is absolutely important to include older parents in the decision-making process as much as possible—without overwhelming them (a delicate balance)—they rely on us to advise them on such matters. We didn't want to screw it up. Visions of unhappy Mom and Dad receiving poor care literally haunted my sleep. The responsibility of this decision was 10 times heavier than if I had been choosing my own new home. We had to look into the future without a handy crystal ball and know what Mom and Dad might need as they age. This had to be right.

Determining Wants and Needs
I traveled from Washington, D.C., to Phoenix and spent several weeks looking at facilities with one of my three sisters, Susie, who lives near my parents. We all sat down and made a list of things they wanted and needed in their new home.

I used a flip chart, which greatly helped my parents participate in the decision-making, even though their first inclination was to say "whatever you think." Once we got started, they found there were quite a few things that were important to them. The list included things such as an attractive buildings and ambience, friendly people, stimulating activities, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a washer and dryer in the apartment, decent meals, services in their apartment to remind them to take their medications, stand-by bathing help, flexibility of care for their future needs, transportation to doctors' appointments and other key, routine stops (the two most important being Dad's massage and Mom's hair appointment). Most important were a safe, shaded place to walk the dog, the ability to install a doggie door, and a fenced-in area for Jackson, their schnoodle, to do his business.

Doing the Numbers: Finances
My parents made a decision in their younger years that will support their needs for services: They purchased long-term-care insurance. It will help pay for home-health services, assisted living, or skilled nursing care as they need it. Even so, however, the financial aspects of The Big Move have been quite daunting. As my parents' financial manager, I have felt as if I were herding cats trying to put all the financial pieces together. Despite the intricacies of funding, though, we forged ahead.

Screening and Visiting
I contacted an assisted-living locator service, which assessed our needs and discussed housing options. The service took my sister and me to visit six facilities in the geographic area we had designated. We wanted a place close to my sister's home and my parent's house, for two reasons: 1) We wanted to make the transition as easy as possible; their continuing to go to the same grocery store, hair salon, drug store, and other key spots, would help a lot; 2) we knew that the closer the new place would be to our homes, the more frequently and easily we could be there to spend time with them. This way, too, we could be sure they would get the best possible support. The idea was to narrow down the list and to take my parents to visit two of them.

Easier said than done—we ended up taking them to visit four, because we wanted to see their reactions and to gauge what was important to them. After all, they are the ones who have to live with the choice, right?

The Final Choice
Of course, none of the facilities had it all. After visiting, testing out the food (which ranged from practically gourmet to just OK), and meeting the residents and staff at four facilities—ranging from assisted living, to independent living to continuing-care retirement communities (which offer many levels of care, from independent living to assisted living to memory care and skilled nursing)—we compared the options. We settled on the continuing-care option. My parents would move into a two-bedroom apartment in the independent-living part of the community. That decision was based on several factors:

  • The residents all seemed genuinely happy there, and were very friendly.
  • The community offers a "personalized living" service, which includes flexible home-health services right in their apartment.
  • There's a physical-therapy program and ongoing one-on-one exercise assistance on-site—both of which are important to Mom.
  • As my parents age, if they need higher levels of care, they can receive it on the same community campus.
  • The facility had the largest apartment (1,220 square feet). Mom thought it wouldn't feel like quite so much of a "step down" from their big, spacious home.
  • The community is less than 3 miles from my sister's house and their old house—so all their familiar haunts will be nearby and within the transportation boundaries the facility offers.

These were all important aspects, but what made my parents the happiest? Of course, the fact that Jackson would be covered. After all, he's a part of the family too! The place my parents chose was willing to put in a fence off the patio for Jackson, and the 19-acre campus, with grass and mature shade trees, offers unusually great dog-walking turf in sunny Phoenix.

P.S. My mom was also thrilled the place was big enough to house a fancy new TV, too! Ahhh yes, quality of life is just as important as quality of care. It's the little things in life, isn't it?!

The Unspoken Sorrow
As we went through the beginning phases of this change, everyone's emotions were on edge, to say the least. While we all wanted to stay positive, and my Dad is the eternal optimist, he was angry about not being able to drive. All four of us (daughters) are experienced job stressers. Two of my sisters, who are at points in their lives where they can't help in person, felt removed from the process. There was also a sense of urgency, counterbalanced by a need for time to make prudent decisions. And ever present was the sorrow that The Big Move represented the end of a phase in my parent's lives. Things in our family would never be quite the same again.

It is one of the most difficult times in the life of a family, and this kind of change can cause resentments, arguments, and rifts in even the closest of families. Mine is no exception. We are just human, trying to do the best we can. All we could do was e-mail, have conference calls, and have faith that this was the right time, and the right move.

While it's not a good idea to push the decision, there was a sense of relief once the decision had been made. It was time to move on, time to put our energies into practical tasks, like going through closets, choosing paint colors—and getting a fence put up for Jackson.