Written by Valerie Berenyi, Calgary Herald
Her beef stew, homemade brown bread and oatmeal cookies were legendary. But when my 80-something grandmother set the kitchen on fire after forgetting something on the stove, it marked the beginning of a big transition in her life.
While the smoke damage could be cleaned up and painted over, clearly her Alzheimer’s had progressed to a point where she and my grandfather could no longer safely live in their tidy bungalow with its lovingly tended garden. It was time to move.
And so they did: first to an apartment and then to a seniors’ facility that provided increasing levels of care as my grandmother’s disease worsened. My grandfather lived in the same complex, but in a lodge with a lower level of care, and he visited his beloved daily.
Short of the trauma and drama of a kitchen fire putting lives at risk, how do you as an older person — or as the loved one of an older person — decide when it’s time to leave the family home? What can you do to prepare, or help someone prepare, for that move?
Shifting demographics have made these increasingly important questions, says Mara Osis, president of Elderwise, a Calgarybased company that helps families and businesses with aging issues.
Typically, the need to move is precipitated by a medical condition, safety issues such as stairs, a change in one’s marital status or finances, or growing weary of being tethered to a big house and yard.
In the olden days, when people didn’t regularly live into their 80s, 90s or 100s, once an aging person left his or her home, the choices were few: live with an adult child or move into a nursing home.
“Now there are so many options on the continuum,” says Osis. “It can be very subtle, starting with modifications to the existing home, hiring help, moving to a newer, smaller house, or downsizing to a condo, a retirement residence or assisted living long before considering a nursing home.”
Osis and her former business partner Maureen Osis (no relation) founded their business six years ago when they saw baby boomers struggling to find ways to support their aging parents while keeping their own careers and finances on track.
Elderwise produces books, a website and e-guides, gives talks and provides a family coaching service.
“I see a lot of caregivers — adult children — who burn out. The support they’re trying to give to an aging parent is unrealistic and it’s compromising their careers, their family life, everything.
“They stop being sons and daughters and they become errand runners,” says Osis, who knows the process first-hand, having dealt with aging family members for 25 years.
“I’ve seen the whole spectrum: someone who was well-prepared and pragmatic and had everything in order; and someone who was in chaos and denial and kind of liked it that way. They’re hoping that somehow, when the time comes, that things are going to just work out and they’ll be rescued. In the meantime, they can just have it their way.”
Those with older folks reluctant to adapt to the realities of aging may need to sharpen their relationship skills, she says. Sometimes gentle persistence is required.
Osis suggests the conversation about preparing for a move might go something like this: “Let’s sit down for a few minutes and talk about this. Humour me. Let’s talk about ‘What if?’ What would that mean to the rest of the family, Mom, if you suddenly have a stroke and nothing has been talked about or prepared?”
Taking the focus off the person and gently showing them what impact their decisions have can make a difference, she says.
Difficult family conversations are often fraught with complications because members are scattered across the country or the world.
And sibling dynamics come into play. Some brothers and sisters have good relationships; others don’t.
“It takes a lot of skill to navigate these changes and not fall back into being seven and nine again,” says Osis, who offers family coaching, either in person in Calgary or via conference call.
“Some family members are more eager to be part of that team. Others would just as soon leave it to someone else. Somebody has to take the lead. Sometimes it’s the parents themselves, but more often than not, it’s the sibling who sees what’s going on the most.”
Family taking charge
Calgary public relations practitioner Neil Bousquet was the sibling who took charge.
His aging, widowed mother was “fiercely independent” and living in Vancouver on the ground floor of a seniors’ apartment building.
“Then I got a call from her sister and my uncle. They said ‘you need to come out here and see your mom. . . .’ They were afraid to say what needed to be said.”
Bousquet said his mom sounded fine on the phone, but when he went to visit her he soon realized she had dementia.
“You wouldn’t pick up on the nuances unless you were physically with her and then I realized we’d have to move her. In the back of my head I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, she could burned the whole place down if she left a pot on.’ “
He packed up everything and moved her to Calgary. Before her mental faculties diminished further, together they made decisions about wills, power of attorney and her end-of-life wishes. Initially they chose an assisted living residence.
“She was involved in the decisions every step of the way,” says Bousquet.
“I think you need to talk to your siblings about what needs to be done, but both my brother and sister (who live back east) were willing to let me run with the ball. I just took charge.”
A series of strokes and her worsening dementia eventually necessitated a move to a long-term care facility, which is where she lives today at age 83.
“It’s not an easy transition to make,” he admits, explaining that he finds the facility “depressing.”
“I have to ask myself, ‘Is it the best place for her right now? Is she in any pain, in any discomfort? No. Is she loved and being cared for properly? Absolutely.
“But it’s not about me. It took me awhile to get my head around that. And when you do, it’s a lot easier because the decisions you have to make are not based on your own personal preferences. It’s based on what’s best for the person you’re taking care of.”
Outsourcing the transition
The business community has evolved to help with these changing realities of modern life. You can even outsource the whole works to a company such as Transitions, headquartered in Calgary with six locations in Western Canada.
Its downsizing service will help you (or your parent) find a new home, pack up your belongings or sell off the ones you no longer need, and set up a new home including hanging pictures “in the easiest, less stressful way possible,” says Transitions president Dawn Rennie.
“Downsizing is very emotional, very personal and every situation is different.”
If outsourcing this important transition sounds a bit heartless, consider this: “Given the changing demographics, a lot of times the ‘kids’ themselves are in their 60s and 70s,” says Rennie, and have health issues of their own.
After the experience of moving his mother, Bousquet, 59, and his wife are already thinking about their own downsizing.
“We know that one day we’ll have to go from a house in the ‘burbs to a condo. Going through all this made me realize, why would you want to dump this stuff on somebody else to make decisions?
“It’s made us more mindful of our own preparations,” Bousquet says. “Everybody should, rather than waiting right to the end.”