I was heartbroken as I sat alone in the house I grew up in. Mom and Dad lived there during 72 years of marriage but at age 95 had recently moved to a senior residence. Over the years they’d stuffed the house with clutter and family memorabilia.
My task wasn’t easy. Despite 20 years encouraging them to prepare for declining health they procrastinated and chose to “wait and see” what would happen. Their ability to care for the home declined as they aged, and it became ever more cluttered and dirty. Various appliances and furnishings broke and went unrepaired. Eventually living there became untenable. As gently as possible, I helped them move to the senior residence.
My brother and his wife spent days cleaning and fixing items in the old bungalow. Much went to the landfill and Goodwill but I needed to decide the fate of family photos, memorabilia, books and other sentimental items. Pressured by time and fatigue I was forced to send precious memories to the landfill. It was hard but was a lesson on how to ease the aging process.
This year my wife and I turn 70. We are in good health, enjoy our home and intend to live there as long as possible. However, we realize years will catch up with us. So, we gradually make decisions and reduce possessions, making our life easier and the disposal chore simpler for our children when we move or die.
We are not alone. Millions of Americans are helping their elderly parents with late life decisions, moving, and purging possessions. Here are ways we are preparing for aging:
Keep important papers, like our wills and advanced directives and financial papers updated and accessible to our children.
Digitalize important family photos and dispose of the tangible ones.
Keep our home and contents updated and in good repair. We’ll restructure the physical space so we have a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom all on one floor. We’ll make entry accessible and periodically freshen the house with new paint, shades, carpets and furniture.
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Declutter. We’re disposing of things unused in recent years and are unlikely to ever be needed. Old camping gear went to the Sierra Club auction, beloved, but no longer read, books go to the library. Functional unneeded tools are donated to the Matthew 25 Tool Library. Magazines are recycled and never accumulate.
Develop relationships with attorney, physician, dentist, financial adviser, tax preparer, realtor, yard care and other professionals who are younger than us.
Investigate senior residences in case we choose or need to move to one.
Keep finances as robust as possible. It’s hard to get old but it’s easier with more than a few bucks in savings.
Maintain an enduring positive relationship with a clergy person or councilor who can help guide us through difficult life decisions.
According to Jami Gordon, Realtor with Keller Williams Legacy Group, keeping a home in good repair and modernized helps it sell and brings the best price. “Often, older people must maximize the sale value of their home to financially enable moving to a senior residence. It is all too often I find they simply don’t have a plan. I encourage family and friends to help their aging loved ones to begin the process early, before retirement. Chunking it down into steps over 5-10 years decreases stress and is easier on the budget,” she said.
As the years mount up it’s daunting and scary facing a future of declining ability and health. However, proactive planning and action will help make our senior years as simple and pleasant as possible for us and our children.
• A New Jersey native, Rich Patterson and his wife Marion, have lived in Iowa for 41 years and co-own Winding Pathways LLC.