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May 16, 2013

Seniors Facing Changes

The home improvement project has been a bit delayed. Life interferes. You know how that goes. But part of the life interfering is helping my Grandparents move out of their current apartment in their retirement community into an assisted-living facility next door. Not only is the new place a bit smaller but they need more room for my Grandfather to get around with his new walker. Until now he hasn't even used a cane. Not that he didn't need the cane; he was just a little too vain before to use it. He's 94. I love that he didn't want to look old at 94. That is fight.

As I share some of the challenges I've faced with my grandparents and their slightly hordy-ish behaviors they have, I find many other friends have had the same experience. It seems to be common with the WWII/Depression generation. So I'll share some of the strategies that I have found that work for us. Everyone is going to have a different experience so tread carefully if you try one of mine.

I don't move a lot things. My Grandfather's vision is terrible and both his and my Grandmother's memory is fragile. They get in the habit of having something somewhere and I don't mess with it. Even it it means they keep their bottle of aspirin in the middle of the kitchen counter. They need to be able to access things and it just makes their life easier if I leave everything right where they are keeping it. So surfaces are going to stay junky and that is OK. When I move them, I'm going to take a picture of their surfaces and recreate those surfaces at the new place. Nightstands, bathroom counters, etc. We'll also move the drawers over as is so those contents and locations won't change at all.

Tackle clear-out projects a little at a time. My Grandmother's closet is so chock-a-block full of clothes she can't put anything away anymore. However, I can see a lot of the clothing is covered in dust so I know she isn't wearing them. Suggesting that we clean out her closet was overwhelming so I made an event out of it. I talked about it a lot ahead of time and told her how we wouldn't throw anything away if we didn't have to. We would donate to a women's group that provides nice clothing to women entering the workforce for the first time and need a nice new suit. My Grandma truly does have some beautiful and expensive clothing so this made her happy that someone else would value her beautiful things. I also told Grandma that we would only do this for an hour and then we would go out to lunch somewhere fun. She really looked forward to that so she had some incentive to agree.

My Mom and I showed up that day and we sat around chatting and drinking coffee. After a good visit, I brought Grandma into her bedroom with my Mom. I had Grandma sit down near the bed so she was comfortable. I had Mom on the other side of the bed and she was in charge of folding the clothing. I went into the closet and pulled out an armload from the furthest corner and stacked it on the bed. I did a couple of arm loads which started to alarm Grandma so I stopped after just a couple. It made a huge stack. We then went through each piece one-by-one. Anything that fit that she wanted and would still wear we put back in the closet. Even if it was dusty. We would ooh and ahh over how cute it was, she would admit that she had completely forgotten about it, we would joke that this was like shopping and I put it back where she could access it. She has already worn several of these pieces because she knows she has them again. Anything that did not fit or that she could not wear (she doesn't wear skirts anymore) went in the donation pile. There were a LOT of shirts that had coffee dribbles down the front of them. It made both my mom and I say we were going to check our own shirts immediately for the same thing. So easy to forget you dribbled a little and put something back in the closet because you think it is clean. There were a few times when I was pulling out the 8th white golf shirt. When we had this piece of clothing surplus, I pulled out all the white golf shirts and let her see them all together. I asked her to pick out the ones she wanted to keep. She actually kept fewer than I thought she would. We donated the rest. Seeing the shirts together in front of her helped her see how many there were. If I had just told her there were eight it wouldn't have been as meaningful to her and she would have tried to keep them all. Visual demonstrations go a long way.

It almost felt like a shopping trip and Grandma had a lot of fun. We finished up in an hour and then went to lunch. Grandma is already asking when we'll do it again. It will take about four of these afternoons but she is in control of the project and it will be easier on all of us.

Sometimes you just have to do things when they aren't looking. This is going to be the most controversial strategy and I'd be very careful with this. The last thing I want to do is take away my grandparents' dignity. But sometimes you have to do things for their own safety and well-being. I'm very close to my grandparents so I have a really good idea of what they need and are using. When I saw my Grandfather's bedroom and bathroom I knew I would have to do as much as possible when he wasn't around. It is so easy for this to happen to any of us when we live somewhere for a long time but he has gotten himself into a situation where his environment really isn't safe or livable for him so we know we are going to have to take a hit and make him grumpy about some of what we do. I just can't have him living in unsafe surroundings though. I've begun very quietly and small scale. I took a couple garbage bags full out of his bathroom. He has stacks of things he is saving for some reason. Empty yogurt containers, empty toilet paper rolls, dozens of those scoops from laundry detergent, etc. Anything that was technically garbage got thrown away that day. I didn't say anything to anyone. He will notice that it is gone but he may not say anything. He may have intended for it to go to recycling but just never got it there.

Another day I scooped up all the glass jars he had saved. Grandma did see me that time and tried to tell me they used them. In truth they were covered in thick dust and one even had a dead moth in it. I showed her the one with the dead moth and she agreed that they may not use them as often as she thought.

Let them have their way. If they want that junky old bookcase with plastic plant containers in their living room; I let them have it. If it isn't creating an unsafe place for them to live, it is their choice how they live. They get to be the decorators of their home. Just like I prefer to live the way I want. Letting them make these decisions goes a long way when I need to get rid of the 40 empty egg cartons stacked in the bathroom where the new shower chair needs to go. They trust that what I'm doing is actually something that needs to go.

Discuss things with them. I find that they will often help make the tough decisions if you just talk to them and are honest about how you feel, what you fear, and what you want for them. My grandparents are smart cookies. When given time to think through a situation or problem; when given materials in writing so they have time to read and process them; they will be the best judges of what works for them. It comes down to time. Give them days/weeks to process this themselves. If the situation isn't immediately unsafe, you have the luxury of some time. Give it to them.

These strategies are so personal and everyone is going to have different situations and people they are working with that I can't begin to say this is a guide. We did ask them if they would prefer to go somewhere fun for the weekend they move and when they come back they just go to the new place. They loved that plan so clearly they trust us. We did have to promise my Grandfather that what wouldn't fit in his new home would be boxed up and go to their vacation home where he can go through the boxes one at a time to evaluate the contents. He will never get around to doing that but that's OK.

I don't get to have a lot more time with my grandparents and I just want to make sure we spend more time enjoying each other than wrestling over keeping the broken TV from the 70s. There is plenty of time to get rid of it later.