Moving Mom and Dad

Sometimes it starts with a phone call at 2 AM. “Your mom had a stroke.” Sometimes there is simply a gradual worsening of chronic conditions, and over time the home that worked so well for so many years is too burdensome. In either case, your life is turned upside down. There are hundreds of decisions to be made: where will your parents  move, what will go with them, what will happen to everything else? Your parents are overwhelmed, and so are you.

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If you’re a typical Boomer, you take pride in multitasking, getting things done, crossing things off your list. The problem is, your parents may have a different agenda. Faced with the multitude of losses that accompany old age, they may cling fiercely to independence and the need to be in control. They may also be focused on reviewing their life and creating legacy. These different agendas can create conflict and impede progress. Listed below are our top 10 tips for Helping Mom and Dad Move. The tips are designed to maximize your parents’ sense of control and respect their need to reminisce, because honoring your parents includes honoring their agenda, as well.

Tip #1: Let your parents’ emotional and physical comfort guide the process.

Your parents’ priorities and perspective may differ from yours. Seemingly insignificant items may be loaded with personal meaning and memories, and objects of great material value may be less important. They may prefer old, worn objects to newer ones in better condition. Honor their decisions.

Your parents may have a sequence in which they need to proceed that differs from your own. If books are very special to your parents, for example, they may need to determine what will happen to the volumes not going with them before they are willing to focus on other issues. Attempting to force your parents to proceed in a sequence that doesn’t address their priorities usually results in arguments and inattention

Tip #2: Try to replicate the old environment.

Your parents will be experiencing a lot of change. It will be comforting to have some things stay the same. Take photos of each shelf in the china closet, the arrangement of pictures on the wall, and of items on bureaus and end tables. The photos will help you recreate the feel of the former home with speed and accuracy and will make the new residence look and feel more like home.

Tip #3: Focus on sorting, not packing.

Preparing for a senior move is a major organizational challenge. There may be decades of belongings to sort through in attics, basements, spare rooms and closets. In addition to what is going to your parents’ new home, there may be things going to family members throughout the country, as well as the church bazaar, Purple Heart, an auction house, and the township dump. It is here, more than anywhere else, that your help is needed. Helping your parents sort and organize their belongings is the single most important thing you can do to reduce stress, save money, and ensure a smooth move.

dadmichael  Moving Mom and Dad dadmichael

Tip #4: Accept their gifts.

Your parents may want to give you items they cannot use, including things you don’t want. Take them anyway. Store them in your basement if you must, but accept them graciously. Your parents will be parting with a great deal. Knowing that cherished objects, and even ordinary things, are with family members makes it easier to part with things and  reduces the feeling of loss. If your parents are warehousing things that belong to you or your siblings, take them now.


Tip #5: Be tactful.

Poor health, caregiving duties and failing eyesight can result in housekeeping practices that are less stringent than they once were. Tactfully clean things as you sort, but avoid making your parents feel embarrassed. If you find clothing that is torn or stained, suggest a donation site that recycles textiles or take worn towels to the S.P.C.A. Knowing that things will be used, regardless of their condition, makes parting with them easier.

Tip #6: Let your parents say good-bye.

Keep sorting sessions brief— 2-3 hours at the most. This may be difficult when you come to town for a weekend to blitz through things, but constant decision-making is exhausting and marathon sorting sessions usually result in diminishing returns. The sorting process brings up memories, so stories and reminiscing are natural. Accept that some days you will accomplish less than you had hoped for and let your parents enjoy their recollections. Storytelling is more than simply saying “goodbye.” Studies show that reminiscing calms people and reduces stress.  You may find that after telling a story, your parents are able to focus more on decision-making. In short, storytelling is a productivity tool, not a hindrance. Listen respectfully, ask questions. Remember that in the long run, it is your parents’ stories, not their belongings, that you will cherish.

Tip #7: Be realistic about how much time you can devote to the process.

If your parents live in the family home, allow 60-80 hours for the downsizing process, 20 hours for items not going with them, and 50-80 hours for helping them pack, move, unpack and get settled. If your time is limited, spend your time with them doing “fun” things and providing emotional support, and hire professional help for the rest. Senior Move Managers specialize in this type of support.

Tip #8: Concentrate on the big picture.

Senior moves are stressful for the entire family. In addition to their own homes, families and jobs, adult children are often assuming caregiving responsibilities. Conflicts sometimes develop between siblings over the disposition of items, and more frequently, over the sharing of caregiving duties. As you work with your parents and siblings, keep three objectives equally in mind: caring for your parents, taking care of yourself, and keeping the family in tact.

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Tip #9: Hire a Senior Move Manager.

Downsizing and moving are challenging, but you don’t have to do it alone. A Senior Move Manger like Moving Solutions can provide expert planning, proven resources, and hands-on help to take the work and worry out of moving. You control how much you spend, and most provide a free, no-obligation home visit. Moving Solutions provides services throughout Southeastern PA, the Lehigh Valley, Delaware, and central New Jersey.  For help elsewhere in the US and Canada, go to the National Association of Senior Move Managers. Hiring a Senior Move Manager isn’t an expense, it’s an investment in your health, your relationships and your peace of mind.

Tip #10: Looking Back

“Things” were important to my grandmother. Perhaps it was living through the depression. Perhaps it was burying both her children. Perhaps she was holding on to what she could in the face of so much loss. When she moved, at age 88, she offered me many things.  I said “no” to everything. I had good reasons. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want it. I didn’t have room.

Today, I regret those decisions. It’s not that I’ve grown to like the things she offered.  It’s that I was thinking of myself, and I should have been thinking about her.

Bubbie’s Secret Mission

I didn’t know when or how my mother-in-law, Bubbie, was going to die, but I knew one thing for sure: she wanted to be buried in a pink sweatsuit and slip-on sneakers. “Sneakers?” I asked. “Absolutely,” she said. “I’m not wearing pantyhose for eternity.”

crossword  Bubbie’s Secret Mission crossword

The Conversation Project was started to encourage people to have honest discussions with loved ones about how they want to spend their last days and, by extension, what they want for their funeral. According to Ellen Goodman, one of the founders of the Conversation Project, the difference between a good death and a difficult death is whether the dying person has shared his or her wishes. By all measures, Bubbie had a good death. She had an advance directive that outlined her wishes regarding medical care, she had described what she wanted for her funeral, and she died in her sleep, at 94, with an unfinished crossword puzzle on her lap.

Articles about having “the conversation” all stress how difficult it is to initiate discussion on this topic. What they fail to touch on is how satisfying it can be for the older adult. According to author David Solie, the secret mission of aging adults is legacy and control, and so it was with Bubbie. Bubbie lived in an assisted living residence. She depended on others to clean her room, prepare her food, take her on errands. She used a walker and oxygen. Like many older adults for whom losses accumulate, independence and control were among her highest priorities.  And that is why Bubbie loved the idea of defining her end of life wishes.

She had little to say about her advance directive;  it was prepared quickly and without fanfare or drama. But she had a lot to say about her funeral.

As I had coffee with Bubbie one day, I described how I had been at a meeting where a funeral director talked about how personalized funerals have become…how people can define exactly what they want their funeral to be like.  “Would you like to do that?” I asked.  “Absolutely,” said Bubbie, “It’s my funeral; I want to be in control.”

And so we began. I learned that Bubbie did not want hymns; she wanted Stardust Memories, which had been her and husband Herm’s favorite song. She did not want to be buried with any jewelry except her wedding ring. “Dead is dead; let someone else use it.”

I asked if she wanted to be buried with any books —Bubbie loved to read. She thought about this for a few minutes and decided against it. “Perhaps a crossword puzzle and a pen,” she said. “I don’t plan to erase.” Clearly, she was having fun.

For the funeral meal, she wanted nothing low-salt. “I’ve had to watch salt for the past 30 years. No Alpine Lace at my funeral.”  She declined fancy dresses; she would be buried in her pink sweatsuit and sneakers…which led to her iconic pantyhose statement.

Then we got to the subject of caskets. Bubbie wanted the least expensive that could be found. “In fact,” she said, “I am pretty short. Do you think I could fit in one of your wardrobe cartons? I would be dust-to-dust pretty fast in cardboard; it would be very green.”

During this entire conversation and afterward, Bubbie was, if not glad to have had “the conversation,” at least satisfied that it had occurred, content that she had been consulted and that her opinion mattered. And so it was, when Bubbie died several years later, that there were no questions about what she wanted. It was her funeral; she had it her way.

For resources on initiating end of life discussions with loved ones, go to

For information on how to plan and personalize your own funeral, visit

To learn more about the Secret Mission of Aging Parents Series, go to David Solie’s Second Half of Life blog

How to Handle Family Criticism During the Holidays

“You know, some of Mom’s shirts are stained. You should take her shopping for some new clothes.” My brother, who comes in town twice a year, was full of suggestions. He didn’t have time to help with any of them, but he had lots of ideas about what I should be doing.

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When holidays roll around, you are surrounded by siblings and family members who come to see Mom and Dad. Despite the fact that they live too far away to pitch in or can’t seem to fit it into their schedules, they all seem to have advice on how you could be a better caregiver. Then, to add salt to the wound, your Mom adds, “Look, Michael took me to the grocery store.” One trip to the grocery store and he is a saint.  What about the hours you log every week, doing all the things that need to be done?

If this happens to you, here are 5 great tips from Griswold Special Care on how to handle family criticism:

1. Communicate ahead of time.

Your siblings don’t know about the challenges you’re facing unless you tell them. Stave off criticism in advance by sending a letter or email to family members. Let them in on the details–that Dad now requires weekly trips to the physical therapist, or that Mom is on a new brand of medication because the other kind upsets her stomach. It’s likely they are unaware of the details of your parents’ care. If they understand the situation and the extent of your involvement, they may express appreciaion for all you do. At the very least, they may be less hurtful and more helpful.

2. Mentally prepare a response to critical comments.

Let’s say your sister likes to mention that you should be visiting Mom and Dad more often. If you go in with a response thought out ahead of time, you’ll be less likely to snap at her and make your holiday gathering uncomfortable. One way to deflect an argument is to simply agree, or to ask a question  — how often do they think you should be there? You may find that the issue is not really about how often you visit, but their worry about your parents.

3. Let them know how they can help.

Tell your family know how the burden of caregiving is impacting your life. Let them know there are specific ways they can pitch in from a distance. Give them a list and ask them to sign up before they leave town. If your brother criticizes you for not asking the doctor about a specific therapy, respond with, “I know you really care about this issue. Why don’t you ask Dad’s doctor about that yourself at his appointment next week? He would appreciate your being there, and if you go with him, you will know exactly what’s going on.” If he says he can’t go, offer to set up an email invitation to talk with the doctor.

4. Don’t take it personally.

This is easier said than done, but dealing with criticism is easier if you remind yourself that not every insult has to do with you. Your brother may be lashing out because he feels guilty for not visiting your parents enough. Your sister may be critical because she’s alone for the holidays. Sometimes siblings have had a dysfunctional relationship for a long time, and caregiving is simply another venue to play out old themes.  If you can detach yourself from the emotional aspect of the situation, it will help you stay in control. You may want to just ask what they are feeling. The holidays can also  be  loaded with “old family issues” that lurk behind emotional reactions in the present. If the holidays have been stressful for your family in the past, suggest that everyone makes the most of the time together and plan a time to talk about care issues after the  holidays when people are less tense and have more focus.

5. Don’t try to please everyone.

Remember that you’re doing your best to take care of Mom and Dad, and that most of the time, your best is pretty darn good. It’s because of you that your parents are here and able to enjoy the holidays with family. So give yourself a pat on the back and let the criticism roll has helped you in these tough family situations?



90% of Aunt Betty

90% of Aunt Betty thoughtful old lady2 300x2001“Margie Dear, I am moving and I need your help.” So began the call from my 91-year old Aunt Betty. Never mind that I have used my real name, Margit, for 38 years. To Aunt Betty, I will always be Margie.  Betty has buried three husbands, and her only daughter, my first cousin, died at 20. So I went to Florida to help her move from a large 2-bedroom apartment to a retirement community.

Betty had moved into the community on Monday, taking only two suitcases.  New furniture had been purchased for the apartment, because she had brought none with her when she moved from Philadelphia 8 years earlier. My job was to help her go through her belongings at the old apartment, identify what she wanted, and have it brought to the retirement community.  In short, I needed to help her sort through and downsize. No problem. After all, I am a Senior Move Manager.  But I am also, I discovered, a niece, and throughout the weekend, these two different roles collided.

Like many of my clients, Aunt Betty had a hard time parting with items I knew she would never use. Sometimes, I could cajole her into letting something go.
“But I loved this lamp,” she said, pointing to a 40-inch tall lamp that was still in its shipping box from 8 years ago. “Well, not enough to use it for the past 8 years,” I replied. She laughed and said, “You’re right.”  These interactions – I refer to them as reality checks– were easy, because they did not diminish her as a person.

It was harder when we looked at large serving dishes.  “I may have a dinner party,” she said. Betty is very frail. She uses a walker and qualifies for independent living only because Bea, her aid, is with her 6 days per week. I couldn’t say to her, “Betty, you haven’t made a meal for yourself in months. “ She does not need to be reminded that reality is cruel. It was similar when we went through clothing she insisted she might wear someday. I couldn’t remind her that she wears only pants with elastic waists so she can pull them up herself, and that they need to be full enough to accommodate the disposable underwear she now uses. Some memories and images of ourselves need to be preserved as who we once were.

Even though much of what she wanted to take would never we worn or used, I knew there was space for it in the new apartment. Her decisions didn’t have to be perfect or wise, but they were her decisions, and the Senior Move Manager in me accepted that. Later that day we met with a Move Management colleague whose staff would handle the packing and transport of clothing and other items after I left.  When I took my colleague aside and said, “If you find any clothing that is torn or stained, discard it,” I was horrified. I would never say that about a client’s belongings! Suddenly, I was no longer a Senior Move Manager, I was a family member. The ease with which I had lost professional objectivity and slid into expediency was alarming. Yet, I understood why adult children are so often pulled in this direction. They’re coping with their own mixed feelings about their evolving role and added responsibilities, as well as with changes they see in their parents. When expediency wins, it’s not from lack of concern, it’s from lack of time.

As it turns out, the next day was when  the roles of Senior Move Manager and family member most collided. I had arrived Saturday morning and Betty and I had worked throughout the weekend. It was 8 PM Sunday evening when we arrived at her new apartment with a load of pictures and other items in the car.  Since Betty walks very slowly, I dropped her at the door and suggested that she start toward her second floor apartment while I unloaded everything onto the hotel dolly kept in the lobby for such purposes. When I reached the apartment 15 minutes later, there was no answer. Worried, I began walking through the hallways.  I found Betty on the first floor. “I got lost, I couldn’t find my apartment,” she said “Then I got so tired, I had to sit down.” “Your apartment number is on your walker and also on the keys around your neck,” I gently reminded her.  “I know, but I just couldn’t figure it out,” she said.  And then I realized, I was no longer the Senior Move Manager; I was family.

Like so many family members, I had come in for a weekend determined to get things done in the time frame I had allotted, and I had put my need for productivity ahead of Betty’s need to rest or enjoy my visit. I wanted to be finished; Betty wanted us to have time to talk.

The Senior Move Manager in me emerged again as I reflected on what I had seen and inadvertently, caused. Betty had moved on Monday, a transition that was both hard and emotional. She barely had time to adjust to her new environment, when I swooped in and created two incredibly long, emotional days. I was exhausted; I can’t imagine what she must have felt like.  As a Move Manager, I know that stress, emotions and anxiety take a particular toll on seniors, a toll that often manifests as memory loss and disorganized thinking. Whatever cognitive status Betty had before the move, what I had observed Sunday night was Betty under the worst conditions.  I had caused it, and I should have known better.

When I visited Betty Monday morning, I apologized for exhausting her so much over the weekend. “Oh honey, I just feel so badly that you worked so hard,” she said. And there she was, the Betty I knew, parenting me, rewarding me for coming down to help.  Yet, in her next sentence, she was confused about whether she was in Florida or Philadelphia. The juxtaposition of the old Betty and the new Betty was sobering.

In the days that followed, I alerted family members who might call that Betty might not be herself for a while. I explained that the stress and emotions of the move had taken a toll, and that with time, I was hopeful she would rebound and be more like her old self. And in fact, in recent phone conversations, she has sounded more like herself.

Yet Betty is aware that she has changed. “My memory has gotten so bad’ she said recently, clearly disturbed, “I am not the person I used to be.” To dispute what she knows to be true would be condescending. I want her to know that even if her cognitive status is changing, she is still the same person to me, and that I still love her. “I have noticed a change from months ago,” I responded. “I think you are about 90% of the Betty I know, and that’s OK with me.” Betty smiled. I think being 90% of Betty was OK with her, too.

Helping Parents Sail Upwind

Helping Parents Sail Upwind Sailing Father Son 300x199In sailing, the technique used to move upwind (or against the wind) is called “tacking.” Although tacking is actually a combination of vector mathematics and boat design, to most of us, it refers to the concept of making forward progress by zigzagging rather than moving forward directly. For adult children helping their parents transition from one home to another, tacking can be a very useful concept.

I met recently with a woman in her early eighties. She suffered a stroke last summer, and a few months later, she lost her husband. They had planned to move to a nearby retirement community, and my client decided that she wanted to continue with that plan even though her husband was no longer with her. As she recuperated from the stroke and dealt with the loss of her husband, one of the tasks that gave her great pleasure was planning her new home, a large two-bedroom villa separate from the main building on the retirement campus. She worked with a decorator and implemented a number of changes that made the villa her own. Both financially and emotionally, she was invested in the villa.

For nine months after her stroke, she was not permitted to drive. Shortly before her planned move, she underwent an evaluation to confirm her ability to resume driving, and was crushed to learn that she did not pass. Without driving, her children argued, moving to a villa detached from the main building was a mistake. She would be cut off from activities and opportunitiies for socializing — key factors that had motivated the decision to move in the first place. It was likely that she would need to move again within a few years, to an apartment within the main building. Wouldn’t it be better, they maintained, to move just once?

While I understood the children’s point of view, I saw the issue through different eyes. In less than one year, my client had lost her health, her husband, her ability to drive, and now she was leaving her home of forty years. The villa had been something to reach for and move toward, something in which she had invested time, energy and passion. Now her children were suggesting that she lose that as well. How much can a person lose at one time?

My client clearly preferred the villa to the main building. I hoped her children would support her decision, and fortunately, they did. If and when my client moves from her villa to an apartment at some point in the future, the difficult transition from the family home will already have been made. She will change spaces, but will be staying within a community that she already calls “home.”

The lesson here, for both adult children and Senior Move Managers, is to remember this sailing metaphor — how moving forward in the face of a strong wind requires going from side to side, not straight ahead. Sometimes getting parents or clients to agree to move requires supporting a decision that is less than optimal, but may be the decision that is accepted. Keeping this perspective will reduce conflict and improve the quality of  interaction for all involved, because faced with formidable obstacles, going sideways is sometimes the most straightforward path.