Avoidance is Not the Answer

Last November, I wrote a blog post featuring 10 tips for a successful transition when moving an aging parent into one’s own home. Reviewing this post myself today, I can’t help but notice that the premise seems entirely senior-centric. The bulk of the effort seems to fall on the adult child and his or her own nuclear family, who are all expected to make the elder Mom and/or Dad as comfortable as possible in new surroundings.

In fact, no topic in my line of work hits harder than the subject of aging in place. Almost all elders wish to do it, while few have the luxury of choosing to do so, thanks to safety concerns and the often painful reality of growing old. To add insult to injury, their fate is being decided by someone whose diapers they used to change.

Growing old is so much more difficult on the person who’s aging than it is on this person’s family, no matter how grueling it may feel to watch it happen and/or deal with the fallout.

Why am I revisiting this topic today? Mostly because I have been in touch with the family who inspired that writing back in November, and I am hoping that their outcome will help change the course of one or two of yours.

I wish I could report otherwise, but the 83-year-old elder mother in question isn’t doing well. Her health, which had been better than average for a woman of her age, has been on a rapid decline ever since the big move. Mom’s memory, which had been as sharp as a tack, is failing as well. “What day is it?” she asks her daughter at least a half-dozen times each morning. She no longer cooks or cleans nor takes her mile-long morning walks—just a few of the many energetic activities in which she eagerly engaged just one year ago while still in her own home.

While both ladies enjoyed the process of renovating and redecorating an ample amount of space in Daughter’s home, they never were able to come to an agreement on how much furniture and how many accessories would be brought out of one home and into the next. Why? Because the topic was never broached beforehand. Both felt avoidance was easier.

It didn’t turn out that way. Mom brought way too much from the past and expected it to be all to be displayed and utilized, while the daughter had no such plans. This “junk” didn’t match the rest of her décor. Old mementoes in Mom’s bedroom were one thing, but displayed out in the open? Not happening. In a classic Laurel and Hardy maneuver, each took to changing out the wall hangings while the other was away. Back and forth they went. Eventually, 90 percent of Mom’s belongings landed stacked in the basement, never to be discussed again.

Décor is only one of the many trying circumstances in which these ladies swirl—the tension ultimately impacting the health of the older woman.

While the two may be sharing a home, it will never be nor feel like Mom’s home, especially not at this rate. Imagine how she must be feeling—how any senior would feel after leaving the place in which he or she spent decades building memories.

I am not suggesting that, as adult children of aging parents, we should throw out our furniture and sign over the deeds to our homes. I am suggesting that more forethought and personal truth be factored into the decision of where to relocate our aging parents. Just because an adult child opts for living with an aging parent instead of moving Mom or Dad into an age-appropriate facility doesn’t mean this is the best decision for the parent.

We must be honest with ourselves. Family dynamics can neither be undone nor unlearned in a few counseling sessions. I can provide the tools needed to help, but not everyone is able to put these tools to use. There is no shame in knowing this truth.

Would it have been better for the daughter in this instance to have moved her mom into a group residence, where Mom could enjoy interaction with others in her same situation?

I don’t know. One thing’s for sure: Avoidance is not the answer.

If you, or anyone you know, need guidance in making an enlightened decision regarding an aging parent, please reach out. I am here to help.

All my best,
Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D.

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