Saying Goodbye to the Family Home: Helping Your Aging Loved One Grieve a Move

 

Q. My mother, Wendy, has lived in the same home for over 50 years. She and my father stretched their budget and bought the home together in the 60’s and have made quite a few memories there. They watched four of us grow up there, gardened there, held Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, birthdays and graduation parties, met our future spouses when we brought them home, enjoyed visits with grandchildren, welcomed and lost several family pets, and cared for my ill father until he passed away there six years ago.

Several of our neighbors are the same as they have always been, with the exception of the young families that have moved in. The location near the beltway is perfect, the street is quiet, and despite the age of the homes, people keep them up well. It was a fantastic neighborhood to grow up in, and my mother has lifelong memories attached to the home.

The time came recently that my mother told my brothers and I that she could no longer handle the daily responsibilities of the family home and that it has gotten to be too much for her. She found an assisted living facility that works well for the time being, while she can still manage independently with a little help available when she needs it. She seemed all set and ready to go, which should have been a relief, but it wasn’t.

When the realtor came to take a look at the house before putting it on the market, I could tell this wasn’t going to be easy for mom. Houses sell quick in the neighborhood and there were three offers that first weekend. Mom chose a growing family to be the buyers rather than the best offer, because who lives in the house is still very important to her.

Moving day is approaching and mom is acting as if someone died. She mopes around, cries often, looks at photos, and hasn’t slept well in days. I’ve never been in this situation before, so I’m not sure how to handle it. What is the best way to help my mother through this transition?

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A. One of my favorite Disney movies is “Up,” when Carl Fredricksen, a 78-year-old balloon salesman, takes his home with him to Paradise Falls to complete the bucket list item he and his wife had planned. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could take your home with you during the next chapter of your life?

Unfortunately, you cannot airlift your home using thousands of balloons, but you can take the memories with you! And, sometimes it’s for the best that you can’t take your home with you. Sometimes, the upkeep and maintenance of a family home is just too much to handle for seniors who live alone, as it seems for your mom. Luckily there are things you can do to help make the transition easier for her!

What the Process of Moving Really Means

The process of moving for your mother requires a goodbye, which for many involves a grieving process. People commonly associate grief with death and divorce, but there are many types of loss experiences, including moving.
Grief involves the conflicting feelings caused by the change of, or the end in, a familiar pattern of behavior. Almost everything you’re familiar with changes when you move. Anxiety may also come into play when you’re trying to determine which belongings to keep and which to leave behind. Your mother may not want to let go of possessions with sentimental value, or she may fret about how well the items you give away (such as family heirlooms) will be cared for by others.

The family home was an important part of your mother’s past and similar to the death of a loved one, grief may be the way she continues to identify with and honor her memories. But there are some things you can do to be there for your mother and to help ease her grief:

  • Honor the pain of her loss: You can support your mother through this transition and grief by honoring the pain of her loss, while helping her to stay connected to her interests, her community, and her memories.
  • Stick around: If you do need to bring in outside, professional help, be sure not to disappear, either physically or emotionally. Make sure your mom has someone to talk to and to share difficult feelings throughout the transition.
  • Talk about it: Talk about the move in a positive way, but also be willing to talk about the past and allow for her grief.
  • Be mindful about your mother’s loss of independence: With the move to assisted living, not only is your mother losing her beloved home, but she may also feel as if she is losing her independence. Be mindful of this when you talk to her.
  • Focus on the health benefits: Gently remind your mother that moving means less physical burden, a safer environment to prevent falls and such, and as a bonus, getting rid of clutter.
  • Remember that both sadness and grief are very natural parts of life—and very natural parts of aging. While you may not be able to understand all of your mother’s feelings and experiences in this life stage, you can keep her company. Make sure you keep the lines of communication open so your mother can express how she is feeling, and make sure she gets professional help if she needs it.
  • Display memories in her new place: If there were family photos displayed in the old house, be sure to bring those over to display in your mother’s new space. It may help to find some, frame them, and hang them for her. This is a good way to remind her that moving on from the home she loves does not mean she can’t enjoy her memories in another space.
  • Help her to stay active and involved: In the midst of her grief, your mother may experience lower energy levels and less desire to engage with life in ways she had previously done. Invite her to take walks and experience the sunshine and fresh air together. If she was active in the community before the move, do your best to support her continued involvement.
  • Stay connected with the community: Once your mother has made the move, if you’re within driving distance of the old neighborhood, make sure she still has opportunities to connect with the friends and community she has been a part of, when she is ready to do so. Perhaps she can get together with friends from the community on a recurring basis (once a month?)

Be Active and Make New Memories

As your mother moves out of the home she has loved, she can experience a great deal of pain and grief, but it can also be a great time of connection and renewal. As you support her in moving forward, help her to also stay connected to what came before: the relationships, the activities, the memories. She may be saying goodbye to a home, and that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but she is also saying hello to a new phase in her life, a new chance to connect with others, and a new opportunity to grow.

Do You Have a Loved One Who Needs Help Moving or Who is Ready for Long-Term Care?

We hope things go well for your mother and she gets adjusted and is happy in her new residence. If you need assistance with the move, there are professionals that can help on our Trusted Senior-Serving Referrals of Other Senior Serving Professionals page.

If you have a family member nearing the need for long-term care or already getting long-term care or if you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), please call us to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation:

Elder Law Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Law Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Law Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Law DC: 202-587-2797

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