Q: I would like to ask you to help me make a decision about my mom. She lives three hours away in rural Vermont. Since my dad passed away almost a year ago, my family and I all have been worried about her. She is 84 and in excellent shape. She was a librarian in a local library until age 78. She is still very active in her church on weekends. She walks around her small town and drives very little, although she still has a valid license. She doesn't have any help at home. She seems to be very self-sufficient and it all would be great if it wouldn't be for her telling us that she is lonely. Despite all her friends and activities, she misses dad and wants to be with my family more. My brother also lives here nearby, so Connecticut may be just a better place for her right now.
Since our kids left home and went to college, we do have a space in our house for my mom. I suppose we would need to make some minor adjustments but, overall, I do not feel that this would be an issue.
The main question I have is, how can we make the move as seamless as possible? What are the things to be aware of? Is there a way to do it right? I hope that you can help us.
A: It is so refreshing that, for Barbara, moving her mom in with her is just the natural progression of the "circle of life," so to speak. Way too many seniors do not have that option. Families used to live together more and, frankly, many positive things came out of this arrangement.
As a child of a parent who is far, far away, I understand Barbara's dilemma very well. She wants her mom to be near, but she also instinctively knows that the move may be a very traumatic event for a person at this age. My mom, for example, wouldn't move under any circumstances. However, the stress of the move can be greatly minimized by the family preparing for it.
The very best argument for the move and its success is that Barbara's mom has a strong motivation to be near her kids now. She is a new widow and feels lonely. She is also blessed with an intact mind and the ability to be relatively self-sufficient.
In preparation for the move, the first thing to do is designate a space that will be her new "home." An in-law apartment set up with a separate entrance and bathroom -- and maybe even a small kitchen -- would be ideal, but is not a must. A nice large room will do, provided that Barbara stays sensitive to her mom's needs. Getting such belongings from the old house as small pieces of furniture, a rug or a piece of art would be a great help. Although we do not want to overstuff the new space with old objects, having some of her mother's favorite reminders of the old good times can help immensely.
There will be a definite need for Barbara to give her mom enough freedom to decide how to run her life once in Connecticut. Every household has its own rhythm. Hopefully mom will be able to get in sync with Barbara's house, and her way of day-to-day life will not be drastically different. As glitches are unavoidable, adjustments will have to happen. Barbara and her family will need to compromise so the newest member of the family feels welcome.
Finding medical care for mom is another necessary step. This actually needs to happen before the move, as many doctors have some waiting time for new patients. Ideally, the family's main doctor can add on one person. Otherwise, there may be some wisdom in looking for a physician with expertise in geriatrics. Medical records will need to be transferred from Barbara's mom's Vermont doctor practice to complete the switch.
The most important part of the move for Barbara's mom would be to feel welcome and useful in her new community. Most of us, when you think about it, have only a few needs. We all need to feel loved. We want to be appreciated for whatever expertise we think we have. We want to contribute to society and feel we make some difference. Seniors very often complain bitterly that they are "put on the shelf" and not of use to anyone. There are many examples of how to stay engaged in your community or, as in this case, how to enter a new one. Volunteering is a great way to start. The local hospital may be a good place to find opportunities. The library would be the next logical choice, knowing mom's past profession. If the family is religious, the church community may be an easy way to blend in. A visit to the local senior center may render surprising results as well.
Another way to help mom connect would be to join a gym together -- maybe a YMCA? Many communities have very interesting adult education classes. It may actually be an excuse for Barbara to become more active and to try a new hobby or activity with her mom at her side. It may sound revolutionary to some of you, but taking a college class or two may be just what everyone needs. Planning a trip together and learning a language in preparation for it is another wise choice.
One of my two favorite pastimes is dancing. Many local dancing studios cater especially to seniors. Lessons are really inexpensive and there is a strong social bond among people who love to dance. Another creative way to stay sharp is to organize or join a book club. I suspect that for a retired librarian it may be a great way to shine and take advantage of all her wisdom and years of experience.
To help throughout the transition, you may choose to invite some of mom's old friends from Vermont to visit and see the new digs. Although not trivial, three hours is a very reasonable distance for a weekend-long visit.
Barbara also needs to remember to ask for her mom's opinion throughout the move and later. She also should engage her brother and his family as well. Maybe they can take responsibility for a small part of the move?
Who knows? This change may bring all of you closer and re-energize your whole family.