Making the Decision: Is It Time for Your Elders to Move?

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Article by 

Jean Kittson

It’s never an easy decision to make, but there is a simple checklist you can follow to suit everyone’s opinions, particularly those of your elders. Learn from the heartfelt story of Jean Kittson, and discover practical steps to navigate this challenging phase with empathy and understanding.

There always comes a point, usually after an incident of sorts – a burn from the oven, a fall, the loss of eyesight, loss of memory, the death of a partner, or the house just plain falling apart because Dad can’t do the maintenance anymore – when we look at our parents and ask ourselves, ‘Is it time for them to move to a retirement village or even an aged care home’?

Traditionally, we do not ask them first. Perhaps we suspect they will have the whole bowling club filling sandbags for barricades while Dad tinkers with electrifying the front fence. Or worse, we fear they will be scared and sad and very cross with us.

In any event, we can’t answer this question until we have answered a whole lot of others. For example, you’ll ask, why leave what may be the family home? To have a safer and easier environment for increasing disability?

To have easier access to shops, to transport? Better access to care? More help? More community and security? More support and comfort?

When Mum went to hospital after a coronary episode, I said to Dad that perhaps now, they may like to consider moving somewhere closer to support and help.

And Dad, who was losing his sight and would, we thought, also soon lose his licence, and then neither of them would be able to even get to the shops, said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I think Mum’s heart attack was a “one-off” ‘.

And I wanted to take Dad’s hands in mine and say to him gently, ‘Dad, there is a fine line between denial and behaving as if you’re smoking crack. Do not cross that line now’. But a rude break with the past can be far more traumatic than the difficulties that come with ageing.

The future can seem an alien and empty place, however necessary and ‘suitable’. Because, let’s face it, moving our elders means throwing a whole lot of things out. We may call it ‘passing things on’, we may ask, ‘will they really ever use the waffle iron/ welding set/motorcycle parts/ ski suits/horse harness/fifteen hats, again’?

Don’t let anyone say it is just stuff. Their things are totems and mandalas of their life. They hold memories and emotions. They are very much tangible and spiritual at the same time.

Or worse, we fear they will be scared and sad, and cross with us. 

Their Memories Matter

My friend Sam said this about his mother:

‘As her memory is fading and as she is expected to cull more and more of her stuff to fit into the retirement unit, I see the memories of her life being whittled down to the photo of her tennis group from the thirties. Is this what the memory of her life will be? Will her life be diminished?’

Short answer, yes. Ageing is a process of diminishing and relinquishing. Diminishing abilities and capabilities and relinquishing our stuff, our interests, and our activities. It happens whether we like it or not. It happens naturally and necessarily.

But what we must not do is coerce our parents into diminishing and relinquishing unnaturally and unnecessarily. Don’t make the mistake of uprooting and transplanting reluctant aged relatives. It’s hard enough with gardenias.

Happily, there is help at hand in a sensible checklist to determine how safe your elders are physically, mentally, and emotionally. The checklist measures ‘functional ability’, which is a medical term meaning ‘ability to function,’ a much better indicator than the age of how things are going. Try this checklist, just for yourself, in private. 

HOW DOES YOUR LOVED ONE OR LOVED ONES

1. Manage the normal activities of daily living.

Are they managing bathing, dressing, grooming, cooking?

2. Manage the administration side of their daily living.

Can they do the shopping, banking, pay bills, maintain the house, and drive safely?

3. Manage cognitively.

Are they making good decisions? Legal, personal, medical, financial?

4. Manage emotionally and psychologically.

Are they connected with the community? How are they feeling? Depressed, anxious? Just fine, thank you. Please rack off now.

Also, check their fridge. Is there any food in it? How long has it been in it? Is there moss on the chops?

We did this checklist, and eventually, sadly, inevitably, my brother and sister and I decided to persuade our parents to move from the family home.

Although, in the end, the decision to move wasn’t made because of the checklist – it was their house. Mum (legally blind and loudly deaf) and Dad (two new hips and a couple of health issues that are unresolved because he isn’t letting any bloody doctors NEAR him) were holding themselves together.

But their house wasn’t. It had an upstairs balcony which was held up by two loose bricks and was ready to plummet into their little pool because Dad was either fixing one or cleaning the other, or both. And there were a few things they simply could not do anymore. Riding an avalanche of rubble was just one of them.

Weigh Up the Options

Weigh Up the Options

And so, naturally, their three devoted children came up with three completely different solutions.

PLAN A:

My sister is an actual social worker who specialises in helping people with disabilities, or people of a certain age, to remain independent at home, and have help and care provided for them.

Her plan was that Mum and Dad should remain at home for as long as possible, with home help and regular visits from us to make notes about how they are coping mentally and physically on their own.

And that we get a professional builder to replace the balcony and a large enforcer to stop Dad from trying to do it himself, especially by climbing onto the roof because if he drops his glasses, he will be stuck up there shouting pointlessly for my deaf mum to get him down, or send up his dinner. This was Plan A.

PLAN B:

Plan B was provided by my brother. He is a structural engineer, who had professional advice about the balcony involving gelignite, and who wants immediate solutions to immediate problems, so he bundled Mum and Dad into his car and took them on a little drive to look at attractive retirement villages and have them described to Mum, in order to wake up and smell the ‘brochures’.

PLAN C:

Plan C was mine. This is the one where we turn the spacious old garage cave under our house into a delightful open-plan apartment, or granny flat, which is easily the size of their present living room so that Mum and Dad can throw away nine-tenths of their possessions and furniture and move in with us. And without further consultation, we went right ahead and built it as a surprise.

But All Decide Together

As you will have guessed, these well-meaning solutions were met with mixed responses. Maybe later. Not yet.

No way. Plus, my father saying bluntly, ‘When did your children start taking such an interest in us’? What our plans left out was that every plan sounded more like an ultimatum. ‘Put down that spanner, leave your hands where we can see them, step into the spare room.

NOW!’ And then time barged into the conversation. It wasn’t their health, it wasn’t even their house, it was Dad’s driver’s licence. My mother’s macular eye disease meant Dad was her chauffeur.

Walking was not an option as they lived on top of a steep hill, impossible to access without a Sherpa. Then Dad was diagnosed with macular dystrophy.

We were sure that he wouldn’t be able to renew his driver’s licence and they would be stuck on this peak, unable to reach the base camp for any milk or even engine oil, let alone to take Mum to the doctor next time she had a ‘one-off’ heart event.

As it turned out, four years later, Dad was still driving – safely and well. They could have stayed at home for just a little longer, couldn’t they?

OK, based on what we did not do, here is a guide to how to even talk about it:

• Make sure all family members are present. Especially the elders.

• Brainstorm all options and record them in The Notebook you are jointly keeping.

• Allow all members to comment on the options, beginning with your elders, who, let’s remember, have the right of veto.

• Record each person’s comments.

• At the end of the discussion, read through the comments and ask everyone to agree that A, B, C was discussed, that X, Y, Z are the opinions, and resolve to meet again soon and discuss it all over again.

The discussion will start informally, probably with cake, but write things down. Rotate stenographers.

Agreements between family members are tricky because, without fail, different people will remember different accounts of the same conversation and different interpretations of the same.

Some won’t remember all of it, and some may not actually hear any of it. The good news is that everything will follow an orderly, rational path to arrive at the best solution (on some other planet).

At least you will all literally be on the same page. And the elders aren’t Exhibit A. They are the video refs, the High Court. Families have their own structures, their stress points, their rivalries, feuds and alliances.

A decision to move is informed by the most deeply felt senses of home and family, from love in the room right through to a desire to grab the family real estate. And don’t forget the wild cards, the in-laws. This will affect them also. There may be raised voices on the way home. ACG

But All Decide Together

Key Takeaways

1. You may wonder if your elders need to move before they do. Sometimes the catalyst will be a medical event and you will have no choice. Sometimes it will be a gradual diminution of the capacity to cope, and the decision will be more difficult.

2. To help decide if the time has come, there is a checklist which measures how they are coping with normal daily life activities, physically, cognitively and emotionally.

3. If it looks like the time has come, talk with your elders but remember the decision should be theirs whenever possible. It is essential to involve family also. Encourage everyone to contribute their thoughts, ideas and feelings.

4. You will need many meetings. Everyone may have different ideas but there is a methodology that will help everyone come to a mutual agreement.

5. Start a family group chat or group text or Facebook page to share latest information and thoughts and keep everyone up to date with what is happening. Yes, give the elders the passwords, or be surprised by how soon they can hack it. 

About Jean Kittson

Jean Kittson AM is an Australian performer, writer and comedian in theatre and print, on radio and television. Read more of Jean Kittson’s articles for Australian Carers Guide here.

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