Twenty years ago, my grandmother sold her eight-bedroom home in Atlantic City and moved to an apartment in Philadelphia. “Take this tablecloth,” she begged, “this mirror...the china set...this crystal...” And the list went on. “I don’t have room,” I responded. “It’s not my taste...I already have two of those...” I had good reasons for saying “no.”
Now I regret those decisions. It’s not that I have grown to like the things she offered; it's that I see my actions as self-centered and immature. I was thinking about myself when I should have been thinking about her.
Ironically, I now work as a specialist in senior moves and, consequently, see this scene and others like it reenacted every day. With the perspective and objectivity that comes perhaps only to the professional or the outsider, here are some tips for adult children who are faced with helping their parents move:
Try to replicate the old environment as much as possible.
Your parents will be experiencing a lot of change; it will be comforting to have some things stay the same. Photograph each shelf in the china closet, the arrangement of pictures on walls and items on bureaus. The photographs will help you recreate the feel of the former residence with amazing accuracy and speed.
Let your parents’ emotional and physical comfort guide the process. Your parents’ priorities may be different from yours. If books were very special to them, they may need to determine what will happen to the volumes not going with them before they are willing to focus on other issues. Attempting to force your parents to proceed in a sequence that doesn’t address their priorities may result in your winning the battle but losing the war.
Your parents’ perspective may differ from yours as well. They may prefer old and worn objects to newer items that are in much better condition. Seemingly insignificant items may be loaded with personal meaning and memories, while objects of great material value may be less important. Allow them to make the decisions.
Accept their gifts.
Your parents may want to give you items, including some you may not be happy to receive. Take them anyway. Store the items in your basement if you must, but accept them graciously. Knowing that cherished objects are with family can bring comfort and peace of mind to your parents.
Often poor health and failing eyesight result in housekeeping practices that are less stringent than they once were. Tactfully offer to clean things as you sort through or pack. Avoid making your parents feel bad about the home they are leaving.
Focus on sorting, not packing.
Preparing for a senior move is a major organizational challenge. It’s not uncommon to have items going to your parents’ new home, to an adult son in Maine, a daughter in Illinois, a granddaughter in Arizona, a niece in Texas, the church bazaar, the Salvation Army, the neighborhood consignment shop, and the township dump. Attics, basements, garages, closets and cupboards....there may be forty years of belongings to sort through. Many people feel overwhelmed.
It’s here more than anywhere else that you are needed. Helping your parents sort and organize their belongings is the single most important thing you can do to reduce the stress of moving, ensure a smooth move, and save money in the long run.
Let your parents say good-bye.
When you work with your parents, keep sorting sessions brief (two–three hours at most). Constant decision-making is emotionally exhausting. Accept that some days you will accomplish less than you had hoped.
The sorting process brings up lots of memories. Stories and reminiscing are natural. It’s all right to be directed in your goal, but let your parents enjoy their recollections. It’s part of saying good-bye.
Be realistic about how much time you can devote to the moving process.
Allow 40-60 hours for the packing and unpacking (once you have acquired all the packing materials), and at least that much time for the sorting process, spread out over several months if possible. If your time is limited, use it to help your parents prepare for their move, and obtain professional help for the pack and unpack.
Concentrate on the big picture.
Senior moves are stressful for the entire family, as adult children assume new responsibilities in addition to their own homes, jobs and families. Conflicts sometimes develop between siblings over who bears which portion of the burden, or over the disposition of material items. As you work with your parents and siblings, keep three objectives equally in mind—caring for your parents, taking care of yourself, and keeping the family intact.