Moving A Mountain

The Mechanics of Moving a Mountain

Making a change of address later in life can feel like trying to move a 

mountain for both seniors and their families.


by Rebecca Wise Potter, Contributing Writer

With the lion's share of the work finally behind us, we took a long-awaited trip to the beach. Photo of Becky Potter and her mother, Nita Wise.

When my father passed away in January of 2005, the monster that had plagued me for years grew a new head.

I had long been concerned for the safety of my aging parents, who lived alone in a large home on 58 secluded acres. Both had debilitating health problems. My father had begun to experience periods of dementia. My mother’s mobility had been limited by a stroke 14 years earlier; it was getting increasingly difficult for her to walk.

There was no family member nearby. My parents had moved to their home outside Clemson, S.C., after my brothers and I had left the nest; we knew their friends and neighbors only peripherally. My oldest brother, who lived closest in Columbia, S.C., was nearly three hours away. Another brother was 2,000 miles west in Colorado, and I was a 7-plus-hour-drive away in Virginia. Our parents were fiercely independent, and my attempts at persuading them to hire help had been repeatedly thwarted. I came to know the 450 miles between our homes intimately.

Through all this, I found solace in the fact that they had each other. It was unlikely they would both be incapacitated at the same time. There was always someone to call for help.

All too suddenly, that safety net disappeared. My father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and in less than a month, he was gone. During that brief time, the conversations my brothers and I had with mom about what she would do after dad passed away were half-hearted and unfocused. We were too consumed with grief to think about the future.

The Salvation Army was key. These fellows made four separate trips to the house within a week.

After the funeral, trying to convince my mother to come home with me was futile. She needed time to be alone; she wasn’t budging. I understood, but that was of little comfort. We had a Lifeline system installed and called daily, but still, we worried.

When a rarely available property in the section of small, low-maintenance patio homes in my brother’s Columbia neighborhood came on the market soon after dad’s death, even my mother thought that perhaps it was meant to be. My brother had casually mentioned to a neighbor to let him know if he ever heard that one of these homes was going up for sale. In less than 48 hours, he got a call back saying, “You’re not going to believe this, but ...”

The little house was immaculate and had a screened porch on the back that faced a large expanse of protected wetlands. Not the private, pine sanctuary mom had grown accustomed to, but a definite plus. It had a single-car garage, a huge attic, and ample closet space — all important factors, considering she would be moving from a much larger home. Even though we knew that significant paring down was necessary, it would be nice to have decent storage space so that it didn’t have to happen all at once.

Much to our delight (and relief), mom decided to buy the house, with the understanding that she would not move right away. She had read somewhere that one should wait a year before making a major decision after a life-changing event, and considered it sage advice. She tentatively set October as her goal. She was in the fortunate position of not needing to sell her Clemson home right away, and would hunker down until her fear of driving in winter weather forced her hand. My brothers and I weren’t particularly comfortable with this decision, but had learned that pushing too hard was counterproductive.

In the months that ensued, dealing with my father’s estate became a daunting task. Mom, who had little to do with their finances while dad was alive, was overwhelmed by paperwork. She worried much, slept little, and began to sound defeated. She hadn’t made a move towards making a move; it was all she could do to make the 100-yard trip to the mailbox and try to decipher its contents. I began to worry that it would all become too much, that the thought of sifting through 76 years of accumulated memorabilia would paralyze her. In an effort to get the ball rolling, I did an Internet search for moving companies in her area. I could at least start by getting some estimates.

What I discovered was that there were very few moving dates left available between then and October, and even fewer that worked out for me to be there. I finally convinced mom to let me go ahead and hire a moving company to take what furniture she wanted to her new home the following week, when I could be there to help her. I would take the seats out of my mini-van and fill it with boxes; we could pack some dishes and clothing, odds and ends. We could stay a few days in her new home; we’d have fun decorating. We would leave enough in her Clemson home so that she could live comfortably in either place. She could decide whether she wanted to stay in Columbia, and if not, I would bring her back.

Helping elderly parents downsize for a move can be a grueling, emotionally charged experience. With the right attitude, it can also be a wonderful time for reminiscing and bonding. With that in mind, I offer the following five tips, gleaned from my own experience.

1. Allow as much time as you can possibly afford. Elderly parents may need to move slowly, both physically and in sorting out ideas and making decisions. Know this going in, and try to move at their pace. Impatience adds to the stress and confusion. Take the time to pause and share your memories as you sort through your family history. Listen to some music you both enjoy while you work. Mom and I cranked up the country station, and had a good laugh every time we heard “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.” We also played some old children’s records we unearthed, and were amazed to find we both remembered nearly every word.

2. Your parent(s) should choose what they want to take. Be respectful of their decisions. Resist the urge to dictate what stays and what goes. If your parents are in charge of what is discarded, they likely will feel better about the process. Even though you may feel certain they won’t need 10 years’ worth of bank statements, it will be less stressful to box, label, and store such items to be sorted out at a later date.

Encourage your parent(s) to choose their favorite things, regardless of monetary value. Things that have a family history have sentimental value that is priceless. We decorated the second bedroom in mom’s new home with beloved items from her own childhood, and named it the West Virginia Room.

3. Whenever possible, enlist the help of local charities, and remind your parent(s) of the many less fortunate folks they will help with their donations. The Salvation Army was a godsend during our move. Not only will they pick up at your home, they will carry out furniture and large items. Keeping in mind that your discards have the potential to change the lives of people in the midst of tragedy makes parting with them that much easier.

4. Suggest that your parent(s) make a list of special friends and neighbors for whom they might like to select some items as gifts. Look around for baskets, bowls, hats, even boots — use your imagination! — in which to arrange the items as gift packages. Ask your parent(s) to write a note to go with each that includes their new address and phone number. With my mother’s creative flair, generous nature and limited mobility, this was a job that lifted her spirits and one that she could do sitting down.

5. Work together, and pack up rooms  one at a time, labeling boxes with the room/drawer/shelf/closet their contents came from. This is something mom and I didn’t do, and in hindsight I feel would have been a better way to organize. By packing up one room at a time, you have a plan of attack and a sense of accomplishment when each room is complete. By working in the same room, you avoid having to shout across the house and the travel time required when you discover those treasures you just can’t WAIT to show each other. The idea of packing items in boxes according to where they came from rather than reorganizing stems from the fact that my mother can often remember where something was in her old house, but has no idea which box it ended up in.

Above all, don’t lose your sense of humor! My mother and I rolled into her new neighborhood with my mini-van packed to the gills. We hadn’t showered in days and were punch-drunk from lack of sleep. As we staggered from our Beverly Hillbillyesque vehicle, we wondered out loud what the neighbors were going to think. That thought sent us into hysterics that surely confirmed any misgivings they may have already had! But it was a moment we will both remember and cherish for years to come.


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