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When does making a change mean giving up, and when is it the right thing to do?

My parents are wrestling with that question after a series of sobering events over the past 3 years, combined with irrefutable evidence that they’re aging like the rest of us.

Dreamland, a book about the opiate epidemic, described my hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio as the Midwest center of the crisis.  This, along with the closing of factories I’ve described here before, has turned the area into one of the poorest in the U.S., with all the social problems to go with it.

My parents are in the center of it all, and they want to help, so they’ve hired men who come by and ask for work when they see Mom and Dad out in their yard.  As Appalachians from West Virginia, they respect people trying to make it on their own versus gaming the system.  But given the area where they live, these people aren’t who they seem.  One ‘helper’ followed Dad into the house to get a glass of water and stole his cell phone.  Another day their pick-up truck was broken into and Dad’s tools were taken.  Now they’ve made an uneasy peace with a home alarm.  But an alarm can’t protect them from predators who use their kindness as a weapon against them, as they did when they fell victim to the ‘relative in distress’ scam recently.   And when they’re finished stocking shelves at God’s Pantry at their church, I worry someone will follow them home in the dark.

Then there are health issues.  I wrote about my father’s TIA episode and my mother’s ambulance trip to Grant Hospital’s trauma center in Columbus a few years ago.  Both my parents are active and appear healthy, but the strain of my dad’s lifelong chronic bronchiectasis has caused his weight to drop significantly, and my mother just had serious surgery last week and is facing a long recovery.

All this has taken place in a town that’s over two hours away from me, my brother and sister, and while we do what we can to run interference, fix things, and stay with them when they need us, the distance is a challenge.  So as the oldest, I was the one who suggested they move closer to us.

But moving in your 80’s is a lot different than moving in your 20’s. You’re leaving behind a lifetime of accumulated friends, routines, social and religious organizations and memories.  Moving feels like you’re giving up, admitting you can’t make it by yourself anymore, and frankly – facing the reality that you are mortal and will not live forever.  It’s something our society does a great job of denying, at least until a crisis occurs.

So my parents have begun the dance of looking at houses, then telling the real estate agent they want to wait a few years, then considering it again.

They’re anchored by the physical as much as the emotional.  They have storage buildings with furniture, household items, tools and hardware they’ve accumulated over the years of repairing rental properties, settling family estates, and not being able to let anything go.  None of it is valuable, but growing up in the heart of the Great Depression left a scar, and it’s physically painful for them to see anything thrown out or given away to someone outside the family.  (That’s an Appalachian thing too.  Just read Hillbilly Elegy).  As my mother will say, ‘That’s a perfectly good X and someone will be glad to have it someday!’

So to make the change more bearable, I’m trying to help them focus on all the things they’ll be gaining, not all the things they’ll feel they’ve lost.   For my parents, it means being closer to their kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; having access to better doctors, feeling safer in their own home, and getting help from people who know and love them.

For anyone else who has a family member facing the same issue, a few suggestions:

  • Don’t push. Ask questions about events and situations and allow them to draw their own conclusions. No one wants to feel forced into a decision, and as we age, we become more like stubborn 2-year-olds than our rational selves.  You’re tapping into pure emotional territory here.
  • If you have the time and the ability, consider finding the new home first and furnishing it with the belongings they want to keep, and then cleaning up and giving away the rest. At the very least, work to declutter their existing home well before they find a new home, so they won’t feel overwhelmed by all the possessions they must eventually make decisions about.
  • Relocation stress syndrome (RSS) is a formal diagnosis that describes the physical and psychological stress caused by moving a person from one place to another. It can be tough on kids, but it’s even harder on elderly adults.  After the decision is made to move, and you think you’re all on the same page, realize you may see anxiety, grief, depression and other symptoms of RSS.  Giving them as much control as you possible can in the process helps, as well as maintaining a routine they’re familiar and comfortable with.

We’re just getting started, so we’re not out of the woods yet.  My parents have been down this road with their own parents and they know it’s the right thing to do – but it doesn’t make it easier.