Originally Posted on The New York Times
Any ideas I had about trying to handle my father’s move alone evaporated with a conversation about a flashlight.
We were looking through a drawer in an old bureau, chatting about what he’d need when he left the apartment where he’d lived for 14 years for a continuing care community closer to my sister and me. The flashlight, still in its dusty plastic casing, wore a $1.79 price sticker. Another flashlight — same model and price, different color, also sealed — lay next to it. I suggested discarding one.
“The power might go out,” my father pointed out. He is 88, and his Depression-era frugality is unshakable.
“If it does, you’ll still have the other flashlight,” I said.
“Nah, leave it,” he said. “You never know.”
Time to call in the troops.
In the past couple of decades, a variety of professions and businesses have emerged — because capitalism abhors a vacuum — to help seniors and their married adult children. In the past few weeks, I recruited a team of helpers from their ranks.
You can talk for years about a parent’s move to some sort of senior housing, but once the decision is made, things move fast. Often that’s because of a crisis — say, a hospital discharge planner hands you a list of nursing homes because a senior can’t safely live alone anymore.
In my father’s case, though, it’s because the rent on a one-bedroom independent living apartment starts the day you put down a $200 deposit. And in this part of the world, the rent is steep. So once I’d found a facility I thought would work for him, we had less than a month to sort, pack and move.
Why? This is a guy who, upon discovering that he and his buddy were sending credit card payments to the same address, began mailing their checks in the same envelope, thus saving each of them $2.64 a year in postage. He wasn’t about to pay rent on two apartments just to give us time for more leisurely relocation.
First member of the Moving Murray team: a geriatric care manager. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with such folks, former nurses and social workers who can assess seniors’ needs and have developed an intimate knowledge of the local services, facilities and personnel that can help. I’ve seen them do everything from drive clients to the dentist to handle tangled insurance claims.
In our case, I wanted a care manager to backstop my sister and me. I thought I’d found a good place for my dad; it had recommendations from trusted friends, low staff turnover, nonprofit ownership, ascending care levels under one roof, and location. My sister and I both visited.
But every expert in elder care tells you to scope out a variety of places and to visit at all hours. I wanted someone who knew the local landscape to tell me if I needed to embark on an extended hunt over several weeks.
Sitting in my living room, I told the care manager in detail about my father, his background, his needs, his personality. It would have been better, of course, if she could have met him, but he was 125 miles away. Still, putting the picture together — he needs no help with the so-called activities of daily living — she said that yes, of the local facilities (she has clients in many), the place I had in mind sounded like a good fit. I wasn’t likely to do better.
The cost of this reassuring counsel and the experience behind it: $150 an hour plus travel. The total tab: $222.50, a worthwhile investment. (Because of a disability, my sister can’t pitch in with packing or driving, but we’ve agreed to split the costs.)
Next team member, and the biggest expense: a senior move manager, recommended by another geriatric care management practice. Dad will be downsizing from two bedrooms to one. The move manager drove down to see my father and to case the joint, and to figure out what he could take and where it would go based on the floor plan I’d faxed. She and her staff would help cull, pack, shred. She recommended a guy who’d buy whatever discards had value and haul away the rest. She pointed us to a moving company she worked with. She promised to help unpack in the new facility while my father and I were filling out the endless paperwork.
Price tag: about $2,000 for packing and sorting, and $965 for unpacking, not including the movers themselves and their truck, which Dad would pay for himself.
Final team member: an elder attorney. The contract for Dad’s new independent living apartment consisted of 12 dense pages of legalese, even though it’s only a rental with none of the complicated buy-ins that many continuing care communities require. I didn’t trust myself to know whether this was standard stuff we should just sign, whether there was something we should negotiate, or whether something was seriously kaflooey.
This lawyer, recommended by the geriatric care manager, charged $400 an hour. But it took her just half an hour to review the contract and advise me what to strike out. Cheap at the price.
Two things I know. One, my sister and I are lucky to be able to come up with about $1,750 each to spare the family hours of labor and a lot of sleepless nights. Not everyone can manage that, as readers here are sure to point out. In some cities and counties, social service agencies offer similar help (geriatric care management, for instance) priced on a sliding scale. Otherwise, many adult children shoulder the burdens themselves.
The other thing I know is that all senior housing is imperfect, that family members are called on to be observers, advocates and sometimes pains-in-the-neck. That’s my job now, and my sister’s, and we can’t subcontract it.
Well, three things. I also recognize that once we’ve got my father settled and he’s re-established friendships and routines, things will change. They always do.
This is where we are, for now.
The New York Times