Talking With Donna Quinn Robbins: How to Discuss Moving With Your Parents

This author and moving expert says that miscommunication between generations commonly makes relocating parents much more difficult.

By , Caring.com features editor
100% helpful
robbinscrop

Early in On the Road of Life, Drive Yourself: A Vehicle for Aging Adults, Their Families, and Professionals to Help Navigate the Ups and Downs of Making Life Decisions, Donna Quinn Robbins shares one of her own family's stories.

As she relates, family quarrels about moving her parents into a retirement community had strained relations between her father, retired army general "Buffalo Bill" Quinn, and his children -- Donna, an interior designer; Bill, Jr., an attorney; and Sally Quinn, a writer for the Washington Post. But all the children gathered near their father again during the last few years of his life, as his health deteriorated.

During one visit, as the elder Quinn lay semiconscious in a Washington, D.C., hospital, a doctor asked them if he had signed a "do not resuscitate" order. He had, and the children all said so. "At that moment," Robbins writes, "a voice from the bed yelled, 'Damn it, don't talk for me. I want to live and I don't care how.'"

Robbins tells the story to illustrate the communication problems that often plague the relationships between adult children and their parents, preventing them from making good decisions about where the latter live and how they die. On the Road of Life and Robbins's previous book, Moving Mom and Dad! Why, Where, How, and When to Help Your Parents Relocate, include many stories about the families she has worked with during 20 years of helping seniors move and as the owner of Ultimate Moves, a relocation and transition service that she founded.

The stories provide a fascinating glimpse at the sometimes callous, sometimes simply ignorant ways that children approach elders facing some of the most painful decisions of their lives. Thankfully, there are also plenty of good examples of how families overcame their communication problems and made the moving experience as good as possible.

Primarily, however, the books are primers for both generations on everything involved in relocating parents -- from evaluating whether that's even appropriate to managing the emotional and practical details. Both have a conversational style that is sprinkled with humor, and they include many checklists -- one for for planning a move starting from eight weeks before and continuing right to the day itself, for example, and another for assessing various types of living facilities. There are also quirky and revealing lists, such as "The 15 Types of Seniors Who Move to Retirement Communities."

She also includes great information about alternatives to moving, such as adapting a parent's house for safety, helping seniors get out of the house to combat loneliness, working with contractors, making floor plans for new living quarters or to adapt a home, and looking for mobile homes that have features such as special stove dials for those with arthritis.

"If you don't know what you don't know, then how will you know what you need to know?" one elder asks Robbins, who is also a Caring.com expert in moving. That seems to pretty much sum up how most aging parents and their children go into the moving experience. Those who use Robbins's comprehensive volumes as workbooks should find that, at the end, they know quite a bit.

What was the inspiration for your books?

The inspiration was the whole idea that parents and kids don't talk the way they need to talk. The kids don't really understand how their parents are feeling, what they're going through, or what they want because they're afraid to ask -- or if they ask, they don't get an answer. The parents don't want to be a burden, they don't want to tell their kids what's really going on, and they don't want to let them know they're sliding, because then they're afraid the kids are going to want to do something about it.

My second book takes off from where first left off. Parents don't want to talk about money, but if the kids are going to be helping, they have to know about the parents' assets, because otherwise it's going to fall on their shoulders. So there's a chapter called "Kids Are People Too."

There's information about how to do equitable caregiving if one child lives nearby and the others don't. There's more detail about floor plans and more depth about things like if you stay in your home, how do you get involved in the community? Or maybe you get together with three or four people and start your own community.

Your profession, moving seniors, is pretty unusual, isn't it?

I've been doing this longer than anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are maybe three or four people in the country who have been doing it as long or a little longer than I have. I help people decide where to move and then organize -- decide what to take and what to get rid of. I do estate sales. I'm there the day of the move.

I do consulting to families, almost as an arbitrator or intermediary, about how to deal with this. I don't have a degree, but I'll tell you, after 20 years, I've seen it all.

What happens when kids move their parents to be near them without communicating well about it?

When people bring their parents from a distant place to where they live, I see catastrophes all the time because they haven't talked about the expectations they have -- the children's or the parents'. How many times are the parents going to see you? Are you going to take them out? What's going to be your responsibility and your time commitment? Are they going to be able to assimilate into a community without having to be babysat by you and having you be the person who has to take care of all their needs?

The expectations have to be discussed up front because, otherwise, the parents have moved from their home, their friends, their whole lifestyle, to a place where they don't know anybody. Of course, they expect their kids to be there every day or every other day, and the kids are working two jobs and the grandchildren have soccer and swimming on the weekends, and they don't have the time.

You do meet people in retirement homes and assisted living, and it's a good environment, and it changes and prolongs your life, but initially, you need the support of your family. If your kids move you out there because it's too hard for one of them to drop everything and fly out to you if something happens, then it's not going to work -- the parents are going to be miserable.

Have you seen that with your clients?

Oh, yes. One couple came from Florida -- a doctor and his wife. They weren't particularly healthy but they were independent, and the son and daughter said, "We need you out here because you don't see your grandchildren, and we don't see you."

The parents didn't want to move, so the kids said, "Well, if something happens, we're not flying back again." Something happened. They did not fly back. So the parents got scared and said they would leave. The kids went back there and didn't even pack their stuff. They said, "We'll leave your stuff; we'll get all new stuff there."

That's not right. Now, if it's all junk, it's cheaper to buy new things because you could buy it for what it costs to ship it. But it's their whole life. So they got on the plane and then decided they had really made a mistake and they didn't want to move. The kids said, "Well, you're here now, so you're staying."

The parents wouldn't get out of the car. So the son actually picked the mother up and carried her into the community. And you know what? The son was a doctor. I don't think he saw his parents but once a month

How did it work out there for the parents?

It wasn't good. The mother got sick, and then the dad, and probably within a year they were both dead.

Can the staff at residential communities help when a parent resists moving?

I think it's much better to hire somebody, because when the staff tries to persuade them, people feel that they're getting a hard sell. But when I go out to their homes, I'm just trying to show them the benefits of living somewhere. Once they've made up their minds to move, the staff can be very helpful. But I think it's very difficult for the staff to help them make up their minds.

Once parents agree to move, what's the most common problem between them and their kids?

One problem is that the kids want them to get rid of everything they have. Once you've made the commitment to move, downsizing is the biggest problem -- it can just stop people dead in their tracks. It starts a whole personal dialogue because it's about family issues.

I had one woman who wanted to move, but the son said he didn't want to deal with all the furniture -- he didn't have time to. And she couldn't because she was too frail. She kept begging him to let her bring some stuff. I think she brought three or four pictures and some knickknacks, and the son hired me to buy all new furniture.

She was too frail to go out, so I'd take pictures of furniture and take them back to her. We fixed her place up real cute and we were sitting talking one day and she said to me, "You know, this has been a terrible experience for me. I'm not surrounded by anything I know. I wish I had brought my stuff."

Do you have some tips for children who are moving their parents?

The first thing is that a lot of these parents aren't getting the help they need from their kids. Getting started with the downsizing is the hardest part, but once you take that first step, then you're on a roll. People need to get a jump-start, and I think the kids can do that for them.

Second, the kids have to be very sensitive -- you have to say, "Let's make some piles. These are for 'maybe' and these are 'for sure,' and these are 'no,' and then we'll go back to them," instead of saying, "no, no, no" to everything. The bottom line is, the parents have to feel like they're in control and they have to see that there's some respect for their feelings. You've got to give them some dignity in all this. It's hard for them -- they're losing it, they're going someplace to die.

Third, once you've designated the things you're not taking, get them in boxes and get them away. Take them to charity or even just to the garage. Help get them out of the house.

Fourth, zero in on one place at a time. The worst thing that can happen is that people will go from room to room to room, and pretty soon there are boxes scattered all over, and that makes them feel scattered. So do one room at a time, or clear out one room and make that your staging area.

People with dementia will often forget why they're moving during the relocation process. Is there anything special to keep in mind when moving a parent with dementia?

There are two schools of thought on that. One is that you don't tell people what's going to happen because if they remember, they're going to fret about it. The other is that you tell them they're going to be moving and build the place up. Tell them it's going to be just like home and then re-create their room just like home -- same bedspread, everything.

One woman's situation was a real eye-opener for me. I went to meet this lady and her children were there, and I talked to her and then I said, "Let's talk about what you want." Her son stood up and he said he'd take me around. He took me around and said, "Well, she's taking this and this and this."

I went back and said to the woman, "Would you like to take a walk with me and talk about what you would like to take with you?" It was totally different. She had a bookcase -- it was an ugly bookcase -- but she said, "You know, my dad made that for me." She had a vanity that was a mess, and she said, "Oh, I sit there and look at myself in the mirror and think about when I was a young girl, and I put on lipstick." So I said to the son, "You know what? What you said is not what she wants."

The bottom line is that kids think the place where their parents live is a reflection on them. It's not! Especially this generation of kids -- in their 30s, 40s, 50s -- they don't want anybody to know that their parents live like that. But it's not about what the kids think looks good. All she wanted was things that made her feel good, and that she remembered.

What if the parents are afraid they'll never know where things are if they move?

You can move their dressers with everything in them -- you don't have to take the stuff out.

Do you have suggestions for children who move their parents into their own home?

I've only done that a couple of times. But again, it's the same issue: expectations. There's nothing worse than having a parent come live with the kid if the parent can't drive, isn't involved in some outside activities, and doesn't have friends. Because in general, the children are working, the grandkids are at school, and the parent is by herself all day long. So when the kids come home, she's right in their faces, and then the kids want to interact with their children and each other. It can get real sticky.

If that's the case, the kids need to arrange for a bus to come pick up the parent for adult daycare or figure out ways to get her out of the house so she's not stuck there. And the parent needs to respect her kids' lives and, if she's independent, make her life outside of the home.

What if parents want to display some of their things in the daughter's or son's house?

One of the hardest things about moving for seniors is that they will have items from their parents or grandparents: china, silver, pieces of furniture. The kids say, "I don't want it; it's not my lifestyle."

My advice to kids is always to take those things that their parents treasure and keep them at least until the parents die. And use them! You don't have to have them all out, like your parents do. I have a cut-glass pitcher that was my grandmother's, and I put flowers in it. Everyone notices it, and my kids love it.

How can people make a house work for them as they age?

That's mostly about organization, such as placement of furniture, safety issues, and esthetic issues. If you're going to stay in your home, you want to make sure that you don't have electrical wires out to trip over, loose corners on throw rugs, stairs that don't have tread on them, things above the stove that you have to lean over to get, hot water that's too hot -- all that kind of stuff.

How do you know when it's the right time for your parents to move?

It's totally an individual thing, but some of the basics are: if they're not eating, going out, or bathing; if their clothes are dirty. If they don't drive anymore, if the neighborhood has gone downhill, if all their friends have died and you don't live near them, if their health is deteriorating.

Another thing is if they're afraid of living in their home because of security issues. I remember a guy who was so terrified of living alone in his house that he had seven bolts on all of his doors and windows. He had a stroke, and nobody found him for two days, and the fire department had to break down the door to get in.

One of the things that I tell people when their parents live far away is to surprise them with a visit if you have concerns. Because if they know you're coming, they're going to shape up. The first thing you need to do is look in the garbage can, because what you see in the garbage can is what they're eating. If you see TV dinner trays, candy bar wrappers, cigarette wrappers, alcohol bottles, you know they're not eating well.

As I said, it really is individual, but those are the kinds of things that you have to look at, especially how they're eating and bathing. When somebody stops bathing, it's a real red flag. It means they feel that it's too hard to bathe, and if it's too hard, that means that mentally and physically, they're not where they were, because people want to be clean. Of course, sometimes it's laziness -- like with my father.

What do you wish you had known when you were working on moving your dad?

I knew about retirement communities, I knew where to go because I was in the business, but I wish I had understood better the anxiety that my dad was going through over this. He was not communicative. He just acted out, and the acting out got everybody upset, and then nobody was dealing with what was really going on. I recognize what seniors are going through in my business but, you know, it was my parents, and my dad was being a brat.

I remember he had this black desk lamp that had lost its base, so he had nailed the base to the wall above his desk. You had to hit the lamp to turn it on because it didn't work anymore. The top where the light bulb goes in was broken, so that was all taped with black electrical tape. When we took it off the wall, it fell apart. I went out and found the exact same lamp, and I threw the old one away and put the new one on his desk.

My sister and I found my parents a place and decorated it. My parents walked in and my mother said, "It's so beautiful, it's just like home," and all that. My dad didn't say anything -- just went in his office and I heard all this swearing. I asked him what was the matter.

He said, "Where's my lamp?"

"I got you a new one just like the old one."

"How dare you throw that away! I loved that lamp."

Till the day he died, he talked about that lamp. Somebody else could have gone in there and said, "General, this lamp isn't going to make it, so we've got to get a new one." And he would have said, "Fine." But I was in the doghouse.

The other thing is this: I think kids need to know the reasons why they're trying to get their parents to relocate. If you're just doing it because it's going to be easier on you, that's not a good enough reason. The "good enough" reasons are that there's a crisis or that they can't take care of themselves.

So kids need to know first why they're doing it, and if it is for the right reasons, they need to stand up for themselves. I was kowtowing to my dad. He was this big general in the army and we were his troops, and he'd yell, "I'm not moving!" And finally we had to go to my mother, and my mother said, "I'm going to divorce him if he doesn't move."

Do you think baby boomers will be better prepared than their parents to make decisions about moving?

I see people not doing what they need to do as they age. People need to take control of their lives as they age, which will create a better life for them. They need to be the ones to make the decisions for themselves, not let someone else do it.

A lot of people have this attitude that "it's too late -- I can't do anything to change my life." And that's not true. I know a guy who's a yoga teacher -- he started taking yoga when he was 80 and started teaching it when he was 89. Another guy I know moved into a retirement community and there was a gym. He saw this seniors' weight-lifting contest and he decided to join it. When he was 85, he won the title. It's never too late.

I think it's really important to pick one thing in your life that you haven't done that's possible for you to do, and have a goal -- maybe one a year or one every two years -- to bring something new into your life. We create our own futures, and I see too many people creating futures that I know they're not going to want.