A personal series on living and learning in a multigenerational household. Part one.
About 75 days ago I moved in with an 85-year-old woman.
She’s my mother-in-law, Betty.
At the agency, we have a lot of experience marketing to seniors. From selling Medicare plans to helping seniors and their sandwiched-generation adult children choose independent living and elder care services and products. But this one’s personal. Instead of talking about all the facts, figures and data we have and know about how seniors at various ages make decisions, what media they read and watch, I’m going to try to make this serial post personal and real. Yes, a data point of one. Rather than a fictionalized account planner persona—this episodic story about what it’s like for me, my wife Helen, and Betty to be living together under one roof.
Since the first days we started our journey together—from moving her out of her home of nearly 30 years in Ocala, Florida, to just this morning when I poured her black cup of coffee and set up her breakfast toast before heading off to work—all of us have been experiencing and learning a lot—a lot—about each other.
Betty is a sharp-minded and quick-witted 85-year-old. Her general heath is pretty good—she jokes every morning that I take more pills than she does. Her biggest challenge and what drove us to ask her to move in with us and leave her beloved hot and humid Florida was her mobility. Nearly 20 years ago she had an accident at her part-time job in a supermarket and broke her hip badly. Since then she’s had a series of hip surgeries and a heart bypass. Her worst operation was when her prosthetic started to separate and come loose from her bone—she endured that life-threatening operation about 5 years ago. The operation was a success. But the rehab and the need to spend almost 3 months immobilized and bedridden until she could put weight on her leg took its biggest toll. Today, she relies absolutely on her wheeled walker to move around. There’s a fear in her eyes and a constant mindfulness about losing her undependable sense of balance and ending back in surgery, or worse, facing another long rehab. No longer able to safely drive on her own and our fear that she was one slip or fall away from a debilitating injury or a new health crisis. It was time to make a move.
Although physically frail with difficulty walking, standing, holding and reaching for things, everything else about Betty is strong as iron. Fragility is only in her body, certainly not her mind or spirit. She is the proverbial “one tough cookie.” Her husband and the love of her life died of a heart attack at 35 leaving her alone to face the world and raise three small children under the age of 6. She kept her life on track, protected and raised her three kids on her own, moved back into her childhood home with her mother. She worked a full-time job, figured out plumbing, learned how to handle a table saw, roof her own house ( a few times), and pretty much learned how to do what needed to get done. Life made her a sudden, indefatigable pragmatist—she faced up to and fixed what life had dealt her. And in time, she thrived and prided herself on her independence.
Early planning for the big move.
We started the conversation with Betty about 9 months prior to making the life-changing decision to sell her house and move in with us in western New York. In addition to the risk of a fall, she started to lose some of her close friends—her golden girls. They were her built-in buddy system of dear lady friends who’d all watch out for each other. Car pool to their favorite activities. Lunch at a local restaurant with plenty of leftovers to take home. A drive to an antique jewelry show up in St. Augustine. But eventually Betty was down to just one friend—and that friend, the last of the “golden girls,” was being lobbied by her adult children to move closer to them out of the state. But Betty and her friend Pat, had a bit of a pact: “I’ll go when you go.” And so it was time.
It made the decision to transition from her life in Florida up to live with us outside of Rochester, NY, a little easier to broach. The conversations were a little less about taking away her fiercely valued independence and more about fulfilling a compact she had with Pat and recognizing that it was time to move onto a new stage of life. My wife led the chats with her mom—very direct, filled with empowerment, choices, detail, and clear paths. She shared lots of information with her mom. Betty was very worried about the legendary cold temperatures in Upstate New York. They were one of the reasons she left New York State decades ago. So my wife made a chart showing the mean temperatures month by month. And compared each with where she’d winter in Florida and what her spring, summer and fall will be like up north. She talked and shared lots of information about her room in our house—the renovated handicapped-accessible bathroom on the first floor, a new walkway ramp, etc. And we shared pictures and photos of our home and the local area where she’d never been, people we’ve talked about that she hadn’t met. Wisely, my wife, Helen, doled this out in small doses careful not to overwhelm or heighten the sense of change for Betty. Ever the pragmatist, one of Betty’s biggest concerns about moving in with us was not wanting to be a burden, disrupt our lives or “get in the way” as Betty would put it. More on that and my life with Betty next time. Look for Part 2—Making a plan a reality.