There’s only one good answer to the question of when to downsize – before you have to.
As we age, the psychological benefits of choice increase and the opportunities to choose decrease. Things happen to us that are beyond our control. We don’t ask for diminishing eyesight or hearing. It’s not a choice when body parts get creaky or just plain wear out.
This is a story of choices – the choices of my wise parents.
My parents raised us on eight acres abutting the Mississippi River. Dad had raspberries, fruit trees, a vegetable garden and honey bees. A luscious rolling lawn spanned the distance between the house and the river. He mowed it weekly all summer. Inside, Mom had her six full sets of service-for-12 china, the wedding crystal, a cup and saucer from every city she’d ever visited and countless other treasures.
I’d married and moved away, but on a visit home Mom took me aside. “Your dad’s hip is bothering him. He doesn’t complain – you know your father – but it has to be painful because he’s stopped golfing. We’ve been talking about selling this place and getting an apartment in town. What do you think?”
Perhaps for the first time I noticed that age had crept up on my fit, energetic mother. She was 64 but Dad was 70. Like a flickering old-time movie, memories flashed through my mind: holidays here, and summers – my girls tagging after their grandpa, their lips and fingers stained red from the berries they’d plucked along the way. But I knew what I had to say.
“I think you’re smart to make the change before you have to.” She hugged me.
“That’s what we think too.”
Within months the house sold and there was an auction in the front yard. “Gram! You can’t sell these!” My oldest daughter rescued the wedding crystal. She still has it.
Their new home was a two-bedroom, second floor apartment in a building where they already had friends. The building had no elevator. Mom believed that climbing the stairs would be good exercise for both of them.
Five years later she was tired of carrying the basket of clean clothes up two flights from the laundry room in the basement. Again, before they had to, they rented an apartment in a new complex where there were no stairs to climb.
When Mom was 84 and Dad had just turned 90, she cornered me again. “We’re thinking of assisted living,” she said. That blind-sided me. I wasn’t ready. In my mind, assisted living translated as: The Final Move. But Mom was certain, and by that time Dad’s mobility was challenged and Alzheimer’s muddied his once-clear mind.
“Have you looked at what’s available?” I asked her, hedging my response, playing for more time.
“Not yet. But there are only two options here in town.”
“Let’s go check them out,” I said. I wanted to witness the horrors for myself. We first went to the newer one across from the YMCA. Mom drove herself and Dad to the Y three times a week. He sat with the other husbands and drank coffee while Mom joined the aqua aerobics workout in the pool. It would be convenient for them to live right across the street.
My eyes popped when we went inside. Elegant furnishings, a grand staircase to the upper level balcony, the chandeliers in the dining room, and the staff in their crisp uniforms felt like a well deserved step up. Mom was uncharacteristically silent.
Laden with brochures and price-lists, we thanked our tour guides and exited to the parking lot. “What did you think?” I asked. Mom looked unhappy.
“It’s nice. The other one is by the church,” she said. They’d been members of Zion Lutheran forever and they attended every Sunday. I decided not to press her for more feedback on the first place until we’d seen option two. We rode in silence to the next stop.
I turned off the highway onto a tree-lined drive with rolling hills that met evergreen forest at its border. The building branched out from a center hub all on one level. Mom’s countenance brightened but she remained cautious.
We parked and walked through the main doors into a space that felt like our living room by the river. A stone fireplace flanked by comfortable sofas and chairs anchored one end. An upright piano next to a juice and coffee bar stood to the right by a row of windows that filled the room with light.
When we left, their name was on the waiting list. “We would feel at home here,” she said.
On the drive back to their apartment I fished for more information.
“The first place was beautiful.”
She shot me an indignant look. “Like a hotel,” she said, and that was the end of that.
Their names came up far too quickly for me, but they took to their new surroundings with the same grace and good humor characteristic of all their transitions. The windows of their new home framed ancient pines and roving deer. Winter, summer, spring and fall, their view of the world was magical.
Dad died a year ago. It was hard for Mom; it still is. But for every meal she’s in the dining room with people who know and love her. She’s an active participant in the daily activities and special events – much more so now than she could be when Dad required so much of her attention. I’m grateful that she knew better than I the right time and place for that last transition.
Now more than ever I’m seeing the kindness in their choices. Their wise moves made it easy for us, their children. They never relinquished control over their circumstances but let go and adjusted before ill health or age forced them to it. We never had to step in and say, “Mom, Dad, it’s time.” What a precious gift that is.
Have you made the decision to downsize your life? What has been the hardest thing to let go? What have been the benefits of making these choices for yourself? Please share in the comments.
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