A personal series on living and learning in a multigenerational household. Part two.
About six months ago I moved in with an 85-year-old woman—my mother-in-law, Betty. At the agency, we have a lot of experience marketing to and connecting with the senior market. But this one’s personal. Instead of talking about all the facts, figures, and data we have about how seniors at various ages make decisions and what media they consume, I’m going to try to make these posts personal and real. Yes, a datapoint of one. Not a fictionalized account-planner persona—but an episodic story about what it’s like for me, my wife Helen, and Betty to be living together under one roof.
Life at 85 moves at a different pace and faces unexpected obstacles.
If you want to have a sense of what it feels like, even vicariously, to be 85 years old, a little frail, and experiencing difficulty walking without the assistance of a trusted “wheely walker,” try making a 1,000-mile trip from Ocala, Florida, to Rochester, New York with your 85-year-old mother-in-law. It’ll give you new appreciation and empathy for living and coping with physical disability and handicaps. Every bump, curb, transfer from a car to a chair to an elevator to a plane seat puts you face-to-face with obstacles and challenges most people racing through a bustling Orlando Airport don’t think twice about.
My wife and I helped Betty make the big move about six months ago. And it was a major life-changing upheaval in Betty’s life, and ours. In a matter of weeks, we helped her clean, prep, and stage her home for the past 30 years. Plan a wall-to-wall estate sale followed by a realtor’s open house to put her house up for sale. She literally packed up her life’s belongings and memories and made a big move to a new life.
Change is stressful – big change is very stressful.
As Betty commented to us the other day, looking back with the past few months and the big move behind her: “You don’t know what it feels like to lose everything you ever had.”
With that one sentence, Betty poignantly summed up the additional stress and strain the move up north and into our home has had on her. And I imagine on any senior making such a big move.
Of course, she didn’t literally lose everything. She got the monetary value of her house from the sale, plus the cash proceeds from her estate sale. But over the course of just a few months of preparation and a few weeks of intensive activity, Betty’s life changed dramatically and she made the big move from her beloved muggy and warm Florida back up north to live with us.
Moving is a major stressor at any age.
We all realize that Betty changed more than her address. Several research studies point to moving as one of life’s top stress events, after death of a spouse and divorce. She left her familiar routines, the physical layout of her home, her handful of neighbors who’d look in on her from time to time, a close girlfriend of many years who’s leaving Florida to be near her own children as well. She left behind her regular, longed-for, much ballyhooed “lunch with the ladies.” Her barely and rarely used Honda Civic now sits in our garage in Florida. I joke with her that we could legitimately sell it as a car driven by a little old lady with less than 10,000 miles on it. All of her memories, mementos, and belongings that fit now sit in her new home — on the lakeside front bedroom where she lives with us. Life has indeed changed for Betty and me and Helen. And everyone’s doing well. But none of us got here without a lot of planning and forethought.
Preparing and planning.
While the big move happened physically in a matter of weeks, the plan and discussion about moving in with us started months, almost a year, before that. It was clear to all of us that Betty couldn’t live completely independently anymore. When we’d visit in Florida, Betty was first to admit that she could no longer do the drive from Ocala to see us. While she passed her state-mandated driving test only two years ago, she realized on her own that it was time to stop driving. Getting in and out, packing up her walker, sitting behind the wheel for any length of time — all would literally wear her out and take some of the pleasure and relaxation she got from visiting with us and watching the ocean for a few days. My wife Helen had several conversations with her mom about moving in with us. In each case, she laid out the options, facts, and realities, almost like a case — and let Betty make her own mind up.
More than mental preparation, physical ones, too.
Besides getting Betty’s “house in order” — organizing all of her doctors and prescriptions for new doctors in NY, and helping get her head and heart around the idea of the move—there was a ton of physical preparation. Our goal was to make sure that Betty’s new home would be easy to access, comfortable, and cozy with a sense of privacy and her own space. And to do it all without making her feel overwhelmed with change. So we planned ahead and made all of the physical changes before she landed at our house. We wanted her to feel welcomed. And because she’d never been there before, we wanted her to feel that everything in the house was just there. Waiting for her, but not done because of her.
The short list of house changes:
- An ADA-approved ramp for the front door
- Remodeled and extended the bathroom on ground floor with a walk in shower
- Grab bars where needed
- A small ramp to get from the house to the lakeside screen porch
- A lift chair in the living room
- A new adjustable bed for her bedroom
- Extra screens and drapes for privacy
- And of course, we filled her new room with some of her favorite things from “home”
Besides fear of snowy, cold Upstate NY winters, Betty’s biggest concern about moving in has always been that she “didn’t want to feel like she was intruding on us.” We tried our best with this move, and every day since then, to make sure that’s never the case. Or as my wife puts it, “we’re doing the best we can.” That holds true for all of us.