Moving mom and dad — or not

My experience with aging in-laws – by Becky Larsen

My father-in-law, “Sam”, must stop to catch his breath every few steps. Sadly, his bedroom is in the basement. That means every morning he must summon the strength to climb the five steps leading to the landing of the split-level home that he shares with his wife (my mother-in-law), “Betty”. After he’s rested a bit, he pushes on to tackle the remaining few steps that will lead him to the main floor and to Betty, who is most likely puttering in the kitchen. (Sam and Betty never dreamed stairs would be a problem when they built their big brown home 50 years ago.)

Betty sported a doozy of a black eye at our 4th of July gathering this summer. She had been a little wobbly of late and it seems she tripped and fell during one of her daily walks down the street. Thankfully, a neighbor saw her and rushed to help. Betty called Sam, told him to pick her up, and then hung up without telling him where she was.

Breathlessness and brain fog — the fallout of aging

In their early eighties, my in-laws are struggling with the effects of aging. Sam has congestive heart failure. Stairs, even walking, are difficult for him. Betty is becoming increasingly forgetful and sometimes has difficulty tracking conversations.

Such deterioration is hard to grasp. As a high school math teacher, soccer coach, boy-scout leader and handy-man extraordinaire, my father-in-law was a living, breathing work horse, a man who couldn’t sit still, except to grade papers or watch the Mariners on TV.

Betty taught grade school, Sunday school, baked from scratch, sewed her own curtains and chased their four sons, all without batting an eye. The woman who regularly whipped up feasts for 20 at family gatherings is now stumped by the prospect of dinner. The bathrooms in her previously spotless home are looking a little scary.

Day-to-day living has become hard. Even painful.

Where to live?

As parents age, gradually losing their strength, health and mental acuity, families face difficult decisions that are fraught with emotion. One of the tougher ones is figuring out where mom and dad should live. The answers may vary and chances are not everyone will agree. Can mom and dad safely continue to live in their home? Is it possible they can get by with some modifications (like chair lifts) and occasional home care? Perhaps they just need to downsize. Or, depending on their health and living situation, assisted living may be the wisest choice.

Plan ahead

The conversations addressing these issues are just so plain hard that we can put them off or avoid them altogether. And that could spell trouble. Having a plan in place is important.

Experts in aging say you should begin investigating assisted living options a good six months to a year before you need them — maybe even sooner, while everyone is reasonably healthy and mobile. Waiting until a crisis hits and parents are being discharged from a hospital or rehabilitation center will mean fewer choices and considerably more stress. See Consumer Reports article on assisted living.

“There’s no place like home”

Alarmed by their parents’ declining abilities, my husband, Matt, and his brothers knew it was way past time to talk with their folks about options — moving versus staying in their home. They sat down and carefully broached the issues of declining health, safety, home maintenance, family support and assisted living.

Other than looking a bit uneasy, Sam and Betty didn’t respond much. They agreed (somewhat reluctantly) to tour a home in a senior living community — one Matt had picked out.

It was perfect (Matt thought). Smaller than their home, one level (no stairs!), close to their church, friends and hospital. It even had a shuttle bus (handily solving the lurking driving issue as well). To top it off, friends of theirs were already living there. What could be better?

Why, their own home, of course!

Giving parents control

Sam and Betty wouldn’t be swayed. They liked their home. And they didn’t want to leave. Betty was overwhelmed at the thought of cleaning out all their closets.

While I may have been tempted to huff in exasperation, I have to ask myself: Would I want to leave the home where my babies learned to walk, where a lifetime of camping gear and memories were stored? Wouldn’t I balk at giving up sweetly familiar surroundings and some of my independence?

So, currently we are checking out chair lifts. We will continue to have conversations about options, but for now Sam and Betty are happy and mostly comfortable in their home.

We must respect their decision to stay put. While we may wish they had chosen differently, really, it’s not our decision to make. As long as they are on their toes, mentally, so to speak, my in-laws have the right to captain their own ship. We just hope they will consider the counsel of the crew.

Still, I can’t help but feel a little edgy, waiting for that phone call that could signal an end to life in the big, brown split-level home.


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