How To Get Your Parent to Move (or, Learn from the Universe)

People my age (44, thanks for asking) commonly look for ways to have their parents do something that they are simply not wired to do.  Move out of their home of 30+ years.  Hand over the keys to the checkbook.  Give up driving.  Eat less salt.  Luckily, the Sandwiched Man has been through many of these and has the magic antidote to get your elderly parent to do all of the above, and then thank you for the privilege.

The answer is: it’s not possible.

Here’s what I mean.  My father lived in his split-level in Lawrenceville for more than 2 years after my mother died.  He drove to the supermarket, to CVS, to the library, occasionally to the train station to pick me up, and even up to Boston.  He was determined to mow his own lawn, manage his own medication, pay his own bills and deal with the house’s aches and pains on his own.  At first, he let me assume my mother’s prior role managing the checkbook.  This lasted until my brother and I decided that keeping the house clean was a priority worth spending money on occasionally.  Then he suddenly decided to change his checking account online password, and move all of his assets out of Fidelity (where I had parked them) and instead invest them with a broker at Wells Fargo.  He also decided that not speaking to me for 2 months would be a good idea.

Now, of course, I manage almost all of this and he moved to be near me.  How did this happen?


First, the money.  He noticed that his investment account didn’t pay enough interest.  He’d had experience with my approach and results (index funds, boring stuff) and realized perhaps that he’d made a mistake.  I suggested that if he wanted to move things back, I’d be happy to help, but no pressure.  So about 6 months later, he reversed course and let me back in.  He even told me his banking online password.

Next, moving.  It is amazing to me that he lasted as long in that house as he did, because the margin for error was zero.  Once he got sick, he absolutely could not manage being there anymore.  But I started the conversation way before then, and not by asking for a date by which he was going to move.  Instead, I asked him that when he moved, where would he like to go?  Massachusetts (me) or California (my brother)?  We needed to make plans, I told him.  Then he told me that he was not moving.  “I know,” I said.  “But someday you probably will.  Those are just the odds.  Think about where you’d rather be.”  Using that line of conversation is some of the best advice I ever got.

Six months later, on a drive back from Legal Seafoods during one of his aforementioned visits to Boston, he again mentioned that he did not want to move right away, and that things were fine.  “Sure,” I replied.  “Until you get sick with something that puts you in the hospital.  Then we have a whole world of problems because there’s no one near you, and neither Rob nor I can move down there.”  The next day at the kitchen table he told me that after thinking about it, he’d want to come to Boston, and probably within a year.  I paused.  “OK.  No rush.”

Then he got sick.  And immediately, he declared that it was time to sell the house and move.  It was definitely not ideal, but realistically, it was the best we could have done.  He simply was not going to budge earlier.

Preserving his dignity is paramount for my brother and me, and not just because some day we hope our children remember our example and do the same for us.  If he’s not bought in, it is simply not going to work, whatever it is.  If he doesn’t have the will to make it work, it’s not going to work.

(Parenthetically, we didn’t just how little margin for error he had until he lived in the house for 2 weeks between my breaking him out of rehab and my brother moving him up to Boston.  The roof was falling apart.  The air conditioning had been broken all summer and, it turns out, the summer before.  He could no longer open childproof pill bottles or punch his lifesaving antibiotics through the plastic.  Every time he scaled the stairs, we risked disaster.  Then once we moved all of the furniture, the extent of the carpet’s mildew infestation became evident.  It was a horror show.)

My point is that in the end he moved “suddenly”, but the buildup took time.  I had to lay a foundation.  That takes time, patience, persistence, a sense of humor, and a respect for the dignity of the proud human being you are dealing with and whose pride is going to come in handy for you someday.  Trust me on this.

Think of it this way:  most meteors cross half the universe before they shoot across the sky for a few seconds.  Your job as a caregiver (and a parent, really) is to keep it moving across the universe so that you are ready for when it hits the atmosphere.

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2 responses to “How To Get Your Parent to Move (or, Learn from the Universe)”

  1. cathysikorski says :

    I wanted to give a thoughtful reply to this universal experience.
    But I’m just now calling an ambulance to transport my brother-in-law
    to the hospital for emergency wound care and just diagnosed diabetes.
    But just want to say we learn patience and skillfulamipylation at every turn in our lives, don’t we? Keep up the good work. You are a good son.

  2. peterbiro says :

    That’s how it goes! Right now, I need to get back home to be with my daughter who has the flu…

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