Helping Your Parents Move Out of Their Home

Roger Schwarz

Blue sticker dots marked a small statute of David I had brought back from Rome in 1985 at my father’s request, two small cream-colored nested ceramic bowls that my father had made when he briefly took up pottery almost twenty years ago, and a raised toilet seat. Green dots marked a white ceramic pitcher that belonged to my mother’s mother, two royal-blue cut-glass water glasses that sat on the kitchen window sill, and ten pocketbooks. Blue was for my father, green was for my mother. None of my father’s many cameras had earned a blue dot, nor had my mother’s own oil painting.

My two sisters – Dale and Cynthia – and I were helping my parents prepare their home for sale. They had moved into a two-bedroom apartment in an assisted living facility last June, after my mother, then 86, fractured her hip and had hip replacement surgery. Neither my mother nor my father – who was frailer than my mother – was ready to leave the home they had raised three kids in and lived in for 52 years. Still, my sisters and I persuaded them that living in their home was no longer safe and after what seemed like endless conversations, they very reluctantly agreed. But each week, my parents returned to their home to get their mail, visit the house, and just be in their home. Now we were asking them to put stickers on items they wanted to take to their new small apartment, so that after my sisters and I selected items that we wanted to keep, we could sell, give to charity, or throw away the rest of the household contents.

This has not been easy. My parents are in their late 80s and feel sad and overwhelmed by the decision to sell their home. The house represents their independence, which they are slowly losing as their physical and cognitive abilities decline. My sisters and I are using the Mutual Learning core values to guide this process.

Informed Choice and Joint Design.

My parents have agreed that we will manage the process of cleaning out and selling the house for them; they have neither the physical energy, nor focus, nor emotional fortitude to do it. And yet, it is their house, and they want to and need to make the most important decisions. We are trying to make it as easy as possible for my parents, while recognizing that they have difficulty making decisions, especially when the number of options increases. My sisters and I have been transparent with my parents about this.

Before coming back to my parents’ house to start this process, my sisters and I had a teleconference call (each of us lives in a different city and none lives near our parents). We jointly designed a process for selecting and sorting items. My parents would individually go through each room of the house and select items they wanted to take to their apartment. Then my sisters and I would place our own colored-coded stickers on the remaining items that we wanted. We created six holding areas: one each for my mother and father, one each for my two sisters and me, and one for items that more than one sibling wanted. We shared this proposed process with my parents who agreed that it made sense. We started to implement it last weekend.

When the five of us could not agree on a realtor to sell the house, we backed up and jointly developed a set of criteria that realtors had to meet. We then agreed that my sisters and I would select a realtor that met those criteria and that my parents would decide whether to accept our choice. We have a meeting scheduled for my parents to meet the realtor we selected.

Accountability and Compassion.

To date, the most challenging part of the process for me has been helping my parents deal with their ambivalence and helping them accept the reality of their situation – all without losing my compassion. In short, they don’t like their current assisted-living situation. Intellectually, they realize that they can’t live in their home anymore, but emotionally they can’t give it up. In practice, this means my sisters and I are constantly holding my parents accountable when they fail to uphold agreements we have made, while at the same time being compassionate about the magnitude and difficulty of this process. I’m not always successful. When my father says he has never heard if my sisters and I think they should sell the house (for 10 years we have been telling them to sell the house) or when my mother calls a realtor five minutes after we have agreed that my sisters and I will make all contact with realtors, I lose it. As I write this, I realize that I need to ask my parents what, if anything, my sisters and I are doing that they find not helpful.

At the same time, compassion led my sisters and me to honor what the house has meant to my parents. Dale and Cynthia proposed that our family begin by simply spending some time sitting in the living room reminiscing about some of our most memorable times in the house. That conversation turned what might have been a logistical exercise into a family trip down memory lane. It set the stage for my parents to share the history and memories associated with items in each room. They explained how my poor maternal grandparents came to own sterling silver serving pieces and how they found the two-foot-high concrete “pharaoh head” sculpture that now watches over the living room. This process took time and we only finished a few rooms, but it felt wonderful to hear and share these memories.

There is much more to do before the house is sold and many more opportunities to use the Mutual Learning approach.

Originally published April 2010