When elderly parents need to downsize, it can be an ordeal for the whole family. Penny Kitchen talks to a woman who knows how to help from first-hand experience.
Amanda Fyfe was a successful businesswoman with a young family when she realised that her parents, aged 75 and 85, needed to downsize – and needed help to do it. This presented problems for all the family members, not least because her parents lived several hours’ drive away. Both Amanda and her brother wanted to help, but spending weekends looking for suitable accommodation, and then helping her parents to get rid of a lifetime’s accumulation of possessions, took an increasing toll on family life, and on the emotions.
“Mum was very fit and still worked full-time at Oxfam, but she was beginning to feel isolated and wanted to move closer to me. Dad who was that much older was beginning to slow down – but he didn’t want to move.”
Finally Amanda’s parents were persuaded and she takes up the story: “I found them somewhere to live, no problem; found a buyer for their house, no problem; but the practicalities of moving them from a very large four bedroom bungalow into a little two bedroom flat were huge. I was going over every weekend. I had three stepchildren living with me, a dog, a business with 18 employees to run, and an old house which required a lot of looking after.
“I was driving to my parents’ every Friday evening, frantically sorting through their belongings and I was exhausted. It would literally be ‘OK, right, Mum, let’s clear this room now’. I would start and she would say ‘But Auntie Annie gave me those…’. Tempers frayed as the hours ticked by.
“Oh, the guilt afterwards!” Amanda acknowledged ruefully. “It should have been an exciting time for them, but frankly they must have been glad to get rid of me on Sunday, to have five days of peace. Meanwhile my brother was making trips over to clear the garage.”
Amanda had planned her parents’ move. They were going to stay with her for a week while she cleaned and sorted boxes in the flat, but in the end she had to make them move into the flat. “It was awful. It was probably the most stressful time of my life.”
As I listened to Amanda recount the story, I thought of my own parents years ago – them in Canada, me in Surrey – and, despite my urging, putting off the evil day when they had to downsize. Lacking practical support, they understandably could not face the upheaval. As I was of minimal help, they could have benefitted enormously from someone like Amanda. Not the stressed and overloaded Amanda who dealt with her own mother and father’s move, but the Amanda who today, as a professional ‘senior moves manager’, can stand back from the fraught family situation and guide her elderly clients through the process.
On a business trip to the States shortly after her parents’ move, Amanda was telling an associate there about the ordeal. “He said to me ‘You should talk to my wife – she got in a senior moves manager.’
“The concept of a specialist helping older people downsize and move house was a revelation to me and I thought this is something I could do myself back in England. I’m usually calm and organised. I’ve always loved older people and felt relaxed with them – I loved visiting my grandparents and felt closer to my own parents when they got older.”
Training in America through the Senior Moves Trade Association followed and Amanda reduced the time she spent at her other business in order to experience at first-hand what it would be like to move other people. “I had moved every three years because my father was in the army, so I could do that with my eyes closed, “ she explained, “ but it is very different moving yourself and moving someone else.”
Amanda’s father died in 2011, a turning point for her. At the age of 49, she sold her business to concentrate full-time on her new venture. Today she feels well qualified to offer good advice to others who may be facing the prospect of helping to relocate elderly relatives.
• If you haven’t already talked to elderly parents about a move, it is essential to open up a communication channel. You may not be able to convince them at first, but you have to keep trying. And if subtlety doesn’t work, you have to sit them down and say “mum and dad, we have to have a serious conversation here.”
• Invite other – older – family members or friends of your parents to sit in on one of these sessions so that they don’t feel they are being bullied.
• Be open and truthful with them. Unfortunately, adult children may approach the issue obliquely out of respect for mum and dad. Show them reality but at the same time show them solutions. For example, point out to them “the day is coming when one of you might have a fall – who will pick you up?” Describe all the available options – care home, sheltered accommodation, ground floor flat, etc.
• Parents will capitulate if the adult children give assurances often enough that they can help them.
But what if adult children can’t offer help for whatever reason? Like me, they may live far away; the chemistry/history between parents and children sometimes gets in the way; and sadly, some families are estranged. Amanda believes that this is where the American concept of Senior Moves provides a solution.
You will inevitably get situations where mother might want to keep something that daughter has designated for the charity shop. Says Amanda: “Someone like me coming in can spare the time to chat about a precious possession that holds a memory for the elderly person. We act as surrogate family to them because we’ll listen to them, whereas often family members have commitments of work, children at home, etc. We give them every minute of the hours we’re with them.” And importantly, there is no emotional child-parent tension.
Questions to ask
Amanda is always happy when a family calls her in at the beginning of the process and the questions she asks provide a guideline for anyone in this situation:
• Do the parents want to move nearer to their family?
• Should they stay where they are because they have friends in the area, because they’ve always lived there?
• Are they sociable, do they like to go for a drink in the evening? Or perhaps they like gardening or to go and listen to talks? This should be taken into consideration when choosing accommodation.
• What sort of support do they need now – and importantly, what support will they need in five years’ time? It’s a much shorter time frame for an older person – closer to five years than 20.
The type of accommodation families choose is dependent on personality and interests as well as finance. Amanda takes her clients personally to see what’s on offer and they are sometimes pleasantly surprised. “Care homes, retirement flats and sheltered accommodation are labels that a lot of elderly people don’t like, so I might take them to visit a retirement community so they can see what it’s really like and make up their own minds.”
Who do you call?
Ghost busters are possibly the only services Amanda hasn’t enlisted to help her clients! She helps get services in, contacts charities, organises house and garage clearance, makes a floor plan of the new property to help them plan in advance where pieces of furniture will go. “We can even unpack for them so that they don’t have to face new rooms full of boxes. But the important thing is, they are always in control.”
She will take on any or all parts of the relocation process, but at each stage her clients are presented with choices and asked how they would like to proceed.
A service like this wasn’t something anyone could have envisaged needing years ago. Amanda explains why: “The change in our culture over the last 30 years means that daughters no longer live at home, or take parents in, or are there to assist when they get old. Now every woman I know works. And also we live so far away from our families now.
“Older people themselves have become more independent. They are happy they’ve been able to build an independent life and they don’t want to disrupt their children’s lives.
“It also has a lot to do with an improvement in health – by and large the baby boomers aren’t unhealthy, just frail.
“It’s great when the adult children want to be in contact, to help and make sure their parents are OK, but it’s also nice for them to know that they can go away and someone like me will be helping to sort things out. The sad thing is where we are helping elderly people who are completely on their own, or have children who just don’t care.”
Penny Kitchen in a Farnham based writer and editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.