The End Years: When Do You Leave Home?

My mother wanted to leave the house on the hill and move to a retirement community in Olympia long ago, before my father had even thought about dying and leaving her alone. I guess she knew he would, though; she had the self-awareness to know she would have an easier time adjusting to a new community with him at her side. “They’ll have to carry me out of here in a box,” was all I knew he said about it. And that is what happened.

Mama will be 99 soon, a few days before the 20th anniversary of my father’s sudden death. After 51 years of marriage, she has been alone almost half that long. And she is still in the house on the hill. Was it where she wanted to be when she looked ahead? Wanted to be, not imagined she would be. I have no idea, but I think she is grateful—and amazed—that she is still waking up on this beloved piece of earth.

Several months ago I threw out the glossy Panorama City folder. She won’t be going there now. And I spoke briefly with the administrator at the assisted living residence center in town where her name has long been on the list for when she is “ready.” It is questionable that she can still qualify to be there, given her lack of vision. Which leaves the nursing home or a family care home. Or her own home.

It was my parents’ intention that “at some point” the property would be sold and the proceeds used either for their care or divided among my sisters and me. I’m wondering now, had they moved to Panorama City, how would it have changed all of our lives? The house most certainly would have been sold. Sad as that would have been, none of us had any intention of living in the small conservative town in which we had grown up, and neither my sister nor I would be here now.

I’m reading my mother the letters my father wrote to her over the four years he was away during War II. Last week, after the home health occupational therapist had been at the house and expressed his astonishment (and concern) that she was not only going up and down 16 stairs every day, but sometimes carrying laundry in her free hand, I told her she really is amazing. She got uncharacteristically teary, and said, “This life is amazing. Hearing the letters,” she said, “makes me realize how much more amazing it would be if George had been here with me all these years.”

I think he would not have coped as well with aging as she has. She is frustrated and depressed by what she can’t do, though her losses have been recent and he was already needing to cut back activity 20 years ago. But she is not angry and resentful as I believe he would have been, though he would have hidden it well. And that begs the question of when do we make a decision about where we live out our end years?

If my mother had moved at 75, she would have missed the life-giving joy she has experienced on the hill. She probably should have moved ten years ago, but who could know the future and made what would have been a wrenching decision? Why didn’t her daughters step in and help her make a decision? We didn’t want to think about it. We didn’t want to think about how her future would impact ours. How do you plan for this? Is living life as it comes a piss poor plan? Or is it the only viable plan?

I read an article in Yes! Magazine this week about passing the family farm to the next generation. The author writes:

“My parents have put their lives and souls into our family farm. And now, to segue in a new generation and safeguard all that they’ve done, we make plans for their deaths. Then we piss on their agrarian remains to claim them as ours. It all seems so unfair to them. And as for me, it seems equally unfair. For 41 years, I’ve been the farmer’s daughter… They are the leaders… I am only their support. But now, we must make a shift, whether we want to or not, if we intend to keep taking care of the land. We must confront our communication barriers, our emotional hot buttons….”

I’m also reading Anne Tyler’s new novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. The transition in this story was made without the parents’ input, without any plan. One of the children and his family just move in and take over. I moved in with my mother with her agreement, but I have not taken over by any stretch of the imagination. I am only support. My mother does not want to let go, and doesn’t trust my ability to make good decisions.

The author of the article and her mother took a farm transition class. The word “transition” caught my attention. Planning for transition. What a concept. And involving the children in the plan: that is something my parents didn’t do.

I have no answers to the conundrum, but I like the idea of a transition plan for my own life, made with my children. I have no idea how to do it. I need a class.

I think how much better life now would be—at least for me—if when I moved in with my mother, we had transitioned at least some authority over the property to me. It would have been a hard conversation, and represented loss for her; but in the end, I think it would have been good for her too. But then I didn’t know I was staying. The plan was to spend a year transitioning her to assisted living. It has not occurred to any of us to transition her life in her own home.

I am staying on the farm; at least for now. Maybe it’s not too late for a changing of the guard plan.

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9 thoughts on “The End Years: When Do You Leave Home?

  1. Pingback: Planning for the End | Todd Dunn

  2. PS. When I think about your Mom, I think of my Grandma (Mom’s Mom) who lived to 102, worked in a bookstore till she was 80 something, was a member of the Pasadena Shakespeare Club, watched PBS and read David Halberstam until the final years, was a staunch Democrat but hated that Pasadena had become so full of those other folk, though she adored the individual “other” folk she actually knew. She once described George W always looking like he’d gotten off an elevator on the wrong floor. I miss her.

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  3. My experience with my parents end time was so different than anything expected. In the first place my mother never ever talked about anything regarding health, illness, planning, etc. I tried to bring it up a few times as they got older but with no luck – and me with no real interest in pushing it, though I eventually would have had to. I expected to have to figure out something for my folks – or that mother would just decide and maybe or maybe not tell. It would have been typical for her to have tell me the day before they were moving out and into some kind elder care, “O by the way…”

    There is no way I or we could have lived with my mom. I would have liked more time, well, maybe…

    As it turned out my Father got Alzheimer’s first. So that was his end time. We wanted to bring him to live near us and checked out local facilities in Dallas. Found good alternatives. I like the idea of being able to take care of Dad, even if he didn’t quite know who I was or at least “when” I was. I also liked the idea of having my Dad around without Mom in the picture.

    So I presented the plan to Mom and got a very non-commital answer, “Well, I just don’t know”. Mind you this chapter started with “I just don’t know how I’m going to cope” and then “I think I’m looking forward to being on my own”. So we waited. Then one day, “I’ve decided to have your Dad here in xyz home”. I just think he needs to be here in town where he knows everyone. Well, yes he would get visitors that was true. But would not be in the same kind of facility we were thinking of. In any case there wasn’t room for discussion.

    Then another day, couple of years later (or less? the details are fuzzy) I got the call from the Doctor saying Mom had had some kind of cerebral bleeing event, hit her life-line on the way to the floor. Never regained consciousness. I got there in time to say things to her that I have no idea if they were heard. To tell Dad she wouldn’t be coming to see him any more – which didn’t phase him in the least. Dad was a delightful Alzheimers patient if such a thing be possible, laughed all the time, told long stories and observations of things he was seeing outside his window that he found fascinating, asked questions you couldn’t understand but he obviously did. Some people thought he knew exactly what he was saying and hearing but was just speaking in a “foreign” tongue. I’m not so sure about that but I am sure whatever he was perceiving made perfect sense to him and was delightful. He did have good caring people in the nursing staff where he was. Management was just there as a money-maker.

    Then one day about a year after Mom died I got the call from the home that Dad has passed on from “complications due to Alzheimers”, it was never clear what but then it didn’t really matter.

    So the end time with folks wasn’t. LIke a film that broke in mid frame. Which brought a mixture of high relief and some bittersweetness. Life was complicated and not very pleasant with my Mom, so much so that I limited that relationship enough that in some ways her passing was not much of a change – what relationship there was based on bonds forged in a childhood full of good things untainted by the perceptions that came with adulthood – a relationship that therefore had no reason or material to change. And so an adult relationship wanted but non-existent and therefore not missed.

    I really wanted more selfish time with Dad, would like to have had time with him on his own. But he went happy.

    It would have been fascinating to see Mom on her own – a state I think she always craved. It would have been wonderful to see Dad as Grandpa. But the film broke. IN many ways they each went perfectly in ways meant for them.

    Plan? Not my plan. Not their plan. God’s plan? The only plan was a forbidden topic, a “we’ll deal with it someday when we have to”. I did find a few notes in Mom’s things about her desires about funeral, etc. She had some lists. Maybe she had a plan, or at least some pictures in her mind. Nothing about elder care. I think she imagined herself living in a little apartment somewhere in town. Doing her thing. So she’d been thinking about it. She was robbed of that -which probably means she went pissed off to wherever she is now, unless she was finally freed of the anger she seemed to carry around like a shawl, except when singing around a campfire – which is where I like to imagine she is now.

    Dad’s plan would have been whatever she planned. And he went out laughing.

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    • Thank you for sharing this. I’m glad to hear more about who they were at the end. I don’t feel like I ever really knew your dad, but I remember him as very quiet. If that perception is correct, then to hear he was filled with laughter and prone to telling long stories sounds simply delightful. Perhaps it was in the throes of the disease that he was able to be the self he longed to be and couldn’t, living with your mother.

      I think it would be very difficult to make a plan, for ourselves or with our parents. But like Todd said, you can have a plan and then bend it as needed when the reality becomes clear. It seems dangerous to pretend one won’t be needed.

      I think my dad went just as he needed to. I miss him all the time, and I’m sad at all that he missed and that we missed sharing with him. But I truly think before too many more years, he would not have been enjoying life. I think he might have been ready to go; the pain of polymyalgia was really a low blow to someone so active. And my mom is ready too.

      Love you.

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      • You’re absolutely right about Dad. I sometimes think he got Alzheimer’s on purpose. He was so suppressed the whole of their married life. I think you’re right about plans, too. I’m not sure why your Mom reminds me more of Grandma because you’re likely right about their personalities and outlook but there is just something about both being ready to go, your Mom approaching 100 and something about the Spirit that keep/kept them both going.

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  4. Reading about other peoples transitions and plans for them is an interesting exercise. For some people, making plans is an enjoyable exercise even if those plans never come to fruition. However, when it comes down to the individual level, each person is different. My wife’s father moved himself into a nursing home long before he “needed” to be there. In contrast her mother (her parents were divorced) only went into assisted living when the state literally carted her away. My step-father moved his mother into assisted living when she was in her mid-80s and she literally went kicking and screaming Despite that she settled into her new life, made new friends and seemed to enjoy the rest of her life. When the time came for my step-father to make the same move, he chose death rather than the loss of his independence. Each person is different and even with your parents it is very difficult to know what they really feel.

    As far as a child or children making plans for parents goes, I think it would be very hard, particularly if the parents resisted those plans. I know that I wouldn’t want my children, if I had any, making decisions about my life. So I think that the family really can only play it by ear. If possible talk over options, but make unilateral plans only if the parents are too far gone with dementia/alzheimers to make decisions on their own. That said, many people are reluctant/unwilling to talk about end-of-life scenarios. I can understand that. After all, who really wants to contemplate death. Fortunately I don’t have to go through the process since my parents and my wife’s parents are gone. Do I want to think about it for myself. Hell no. I have no intention of dieing.

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  5. Pingback: The End Years: When Do You Leave Home | Writing Down the Story

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