At age 90, Marta’s mother still lived in the two-story farmhouse where she had raised five children. The white clapboard structure held a wealth of memories beyond measure, not to mention an attic’s worth of personal possessions, pictures and mementos of birthdays and Christmases gone by.
But Marta worried her mother could fall while walking to the barn and lay injured, undiscovered for days. The idea haunted her.
Finally the anxiety propelled Marta into sitting down with her mother to discuss the situation. “Mom, I worry about you. Maybe you should think about selling the house and moving into a smaller place closer to us.”
Like many older adults, Marta’s mother bristled at the idea of surrendering her independence and refused to budge.
What can you do when you feel your parents are jeopardizing their well-being by staying put at home? Or what about the opposite scenario,
when they announce they’re going to downsize to a retirement community that’s far too expensive for them to afford? How can you help aging family members make sensible decisions about these matters?
Try these suggestions for four common scenarios.
1. Refusing to leave the family home.
Many older adults have a vision of living at home forever. This might be because the idea of downsizing feels overwhelming or because they believe you will take care of them, bring them hot meals, drive them to appointments and so on. Or maybe it’s too painful for them to think about selling or giving away precious possessions.
To help guide the decision-making process in this situation, first try to determine the reason why your parents refuse to consider downsizing. Then address the underlying reasons, either by creating a plan to help them dispose of their possessions without guilt or to shed some light on the reality of how their future will actually look if they continue living in the family home.
For instance, gently articulate your own boundaries by saying something like, “Just to be clear, if you stay here at home, I want you to understand that I will only be able to check in on you each Saturday. I’m not always going to be able to take time off work to drive you to doctor appointments and things, so this is something you should take into consideration.”
2. Proposing to move to a place that is too expensive.
Whether we like to believe it or not, most of us are subject to peer pressure. And if your parents’ friends all start downsizing to pricey assisted living or retirement communities, your own parents may start to decide they want to do that, too.
But if you know they will not be able to afford such a lifestyle—now or in the future—you can point out the financial reality of the situation. Try painting a picture for them, so they can easily relate. For instance, you might say, “That sounds like such a nice place to retire to! Have you considered, though, that, with a monthly rental fee of X and your budget of Y, if your health needs change you could be faced with a choice between paying your rent or buying prescriptions? Maybe it’s something to consider.”
3. Announcing their intention to move in with a family member.
Many parents take for granted that they will simply move in with one of the kids when they can no longer take care of themselves. However, you should use caution before agreeing to such a decision. It could come with many benefits for both you and your parents, but it’s important to seriously consider the cons as well. Adding people to your household can upset the social balance and cause marital strife, as well as creating a possible financial burden.
One alternative is to suggest that you sit down together and make a list of the possible living options available to your parents, no matter how far-fetched they may seem. Jot down:
Move in with daughter/son
- Assisted living
- Retirement community
- Long-term care facility
- Stay in home with caregiving assistance
Don’t exclude any possibility during this brainstorming session. Then ask your parents to explore each of these options (including a tour, when possible) with you before making up their mind about what to do.
4. When cognitive impairment leads to unrealistic decision-making.
One difficult scenario many family caregivers find themselves in is when an older relative is experiencing mild to moderate cognitive impairment that renders them unable to make a realistic decision about their future living arrangement, even though they maintain enough function to live independently for the time being. How can you influence them to take a sensible course for downsizing and relocating?
In this case, you might consider engaging the services of a Geriatric Care Manager, at least temporarily. These individuals assess the living situation of an older adult and make recommendations for how to proceed in the future. Often, when the suggestions come from an expert (who also happens to be a neutral third party), an older family member will feel more open to them.
Rule of thumb: Try three times, three different ways
Marta wisely tried several different angles to engage her mother in a conversation about relocating. Over coffee, she casually took note of the dirty dishes piling up and the dust collecting on some knickknacks and offered to help with the housecleaning. Her mother declined. A second time, Marta expressed her fear that her mother might fall and be injured. Again, her mother took no notice. On a third occasion, Marta brought up the idea of her mother getting a medical alert bracelet. Her mother responded by stalking off to the garden.
After the third attempt, Marta backed off from the subject temporarily. Then, one day when Marta visited, she flipped a light switch and nothing happened. Thinking the bulb had burned out, she screwed in a new one, but still nothing.
Investigating further, Marta discovered her mother had forgotten to pay the electric bill for more than a month, and her service had been disconnected. Marta’s mother sheepishly admitted the lapse and declared maybe it was time to sell up and move into assisted living.
In a best-case scenario, it wouldn’t take a small catastrophe like this to prompt an older loved one to realize he or she needs to make a change in living situation. But even if this turns out to be the catalyst that finally moves things forward, know that your efforts to have these discussions and present options will pay dividends in the end.