Two years ago my mother-in-law and her husband decided they needed to downsize because of their age and her health problems. They moved to a house that is walking distance to their church and a short drive to the grocery store, and they got rid of a bunch of stuff. But they didn’t really downsize.
Now, after a health scare, they are talking again about moving into housing designed for seniors—ideally a campus where it would be possible to get a range of services and where they could transition to skilled nursing care when needed.
To help prepare for this eventual move—which will require true downsizing—I asked my mother-in-law to make a to-do list before our recent visit. She is a natural organizer, a realist, and a planner, and I thought she would appreciate our help getting rid of unwanted and unused items.
Want to guess how much we accomplished? If you said “almost zero,” you are correct.
Here are the questions I’m asking myself:
1. If you have limited physical, mental, and emotional energy, isn’t it natural and correct to conserve and use it for maintaining relationships with family and friends and getting through each day (and not use it for the draining process of sorting through and making decisions about possessions)?
2. If you’ve already endured losses on many levels (loss of health, loss of friends, loss of professional and social status, loss of autonomy), is it possible that parting with stuff—even unwanted, unused stuff—feels like one more thing to grieve?
3. Is the idea of simplifying in order to live better irrelevant for someone whose primary need is comfort?
I think the answer to these questions is “yes.”
While the elders in our extended family feel strongly that they should not be a burden to others, some of them waited too long to get rid of stuff—or even to plan for the last part of their lives. It is harder for them to do those things now.
My hope for myself is that simplifying in middle age will allow me to live better starting today (it is) with benefits that continue into old age (ojalà I live that long).
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A friend recently recommended “A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents—and Ourselves,” a memoir and guide book by journalist Jane Gross. The book was published in 2011 and details experiences from several years prior, but Gross’s insights into parent-adult child and adult sibling relationships feel timeless. Gross covers issues related to elder health care and housing in the U.S. that many people find themselves learning about the hard way.