We broke ground on our new house when I was seven years old, posing for pictures with a shovel as tall as me. My parents had picked a lot south of Denver with a sweeping view from Pike’s Peak to the Front Range, with nothing but horse fields in between. They designed the house, which included a Spanish-style courtyard filled with aspen and columbine and high-vaulted ceilings made from railroad ties that would suit the Navajo art they’d bought on their trips throughout the Southwest in the 1950s and 60s.
Recently, I took another photo of the house, cleared out, right after my 82-year-old parents moved out. They lived in the house for 44 years, watching each of their four daughters go off to college and into their own homes. In their middle age, the house was an oasis from their busy lives; my father worked as a pediatrician and my mother was the ombudsman for the state’s elderly, working to protect the frail rights of nursing home residents. When they grew older, the house became something like an extension of their identity – a storehouse of their experiences and art, and an occupation for my tree-pruning, lawn-mowing, fix-it-all dad.
For us children, the house was an anchor in our transient lives. Even at age 50, I still had my childhood bedroom, with its books, photo albums and high school trophies, preserved as a frame of reference, a source of stability, and a comforting reminder that some things endure – for a while, at least.
When my parents were in their mid-70s, my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. For a woman who had always been athletic – bicycling, backpacking, even going on the first Outward Bound rock-climbing course for women – her sudden lack of balance and agility seemed cruelly misplaced. My father, who skied an expert slope with me just last year, remains hale and fit, a Jack LaLanne of a man who lifts weights every morning. While they’ve grown ever closer emotionally in their older years, my parents have moved farther and farther apart physically, until it seems my father, six months older than my mother, is at least a decade younger. My father could have lived in that house, with its big lawn, garage and workshop, forever. My mother knew that she could not.
For five years they put their names on waiting lists for retirement homes and agonized over the decision about whether to move. Dad wanted to stay, not only because he loved the house, but because he hates change in general. He liked his daily routine of taking a walk along the creek with biscuits to greet the dogs. Mom loved the house, too, but she was starting to slip and fall on the Navajo rugs; making meals had become too exhausting a chore, and, no longer driving, she was starting to feel isolated. But more than any of those reasons, she wanted to move while she could still do it herself.
As the ombudsman for the elderly, my mother had seen plenty of difficult situations where a family had to move a member into an assisted living facility, often against their will. Invariably it was hell for the family; not only did they struggle with the wrenching emotions of moving a loved one, they had to clean up decades of possessions and mess left behind. It was miserable, too, for the elderly family member, who usually felt entirely out of control, disoriented in an unfamiliar place, and sometimes paranoid about losing their belongings. My mother had gone through that experience with her own mother, who had Alzheimer’s, moving her first to a retirement home, then to a nursing home, all the while wishing that so much of the responsibility hadn’t been placed on her shoulders, and that conditions could be better for my grandmother. For 15 years my mother worked to improve nursing homes at both the state and national level. She knew exactly how she did not want to spend her last years.
Foremost on my mother’s mind was that she didn’t want to become a burden to her family. She wanted to take responsibility for herself while she could make decisions, knowing full well that in a few years she wouldn’t be able to do so. Even before my parents began discussing the move, she started unloading; she filled bags of clothes and books for the Goodwill, sold a few paintings and heirlooms, prodded me to empty the high- school shrine that was my old bedroom downstairs. She has made clear instructions about her will, her possessions, her money and how she does not want to be kept alive artificially on her way out. She has taken care of all loose ends of her life to spare her children from doing so.
We all tried to talk her out of the move, fond as we were of the house and of the illusion of permanence. You can get a personal chef, we told her, and in-home care. For the money you’ll spend on a retirement home and its services, you can bring those services right to the house. What we didn’t say is that Dad will be crushed – that a handyman and outdoorsman like him needs space, not a two-bedroom apartment and meals in a common dining room.
As they wrestled with the decision, my father for the first time began seeming elderly, too. He spoke of doing what inevitably had to be done, and of what was best for my mother, but his words contained no prospect of pleasure. He’s had a lot of hardships in his life; his father died during the Depression, leaving my father, at age 11, in charge of the family farm and three younger siblings. He eventually worked his way through medical school. But this decision was the hardest.
When they finally decided to move, my sisters and I swooped in with boxes and bags to sort, pitch and pack a lifetime of stuff. Dad gave away his tools to friends; he gave away the cowboy boots in which I always picture him. Emptied, the house seemed shabby. Under all that art, the walls hadn’t been painted in 40 years. The bathrooms were tiny and the walls were full of cracks. The carpet and Formica shrieked 1968. Even the view was diminished, as housing developments had marched right up to the property line.
We moved my parents into a light-filled apartment with a sunroom and a spectacular view of the mountains, even with the retirement community’s parking lot visible in the foreground. We turned a pantry by the kitchen into a “man cave,” where Dad set up his remaining tools and a workbench. We hung the paintings and rugs and took some pleasure in seeing them in a new place, in a new light.
Mom was relieved from the first day, knowing she could pull a string and a nurse would be there, and that all she had to do at dinner was order and be waited on. For 60 years, she’s cooked meat and potatoes for a man who hates fish; now she eats fish every day. Her voice is too feeble to extend herself to new people the way she once could, so she spends more time watching and listening. She sits in the sun and admires the birds outside, as she always has.
Dad doesn’t yet know what to do with himself. There’s a trail right outside the building, where he can walk or bicycle. There are 600 new people, many of whom will want their jewelry repaired or antique clocks fixed, or who will be happy to play poker or practice Spanish with him. He can take off for a day of fishing or skiing knowing that mom will be okay. He’ll meet the new dogs, and then make friends, but it will take some time.
My father may be restless and discontent, but as my parents celebrated their sixtieth anniversary in their new home, they both had a sense of satisfaction that they’d done the right thing. As kids, my father used to tease us that our “Responsibility Index,” or “RI,” had gone up or down, depending on whether we’d gotten straight A’s or had gone to a friend’s house after school and forgotten to call home. We’ve all grown into adults that not only are punctual and call people back, but also take full responsibility for the difficulties and failures we’ve experienced in our lives – as well as the successes. We’ve learned that from our parents. Now, we are learning how to be responsible in our old age, and to face our later years with dignity and grace.
Laura Fraser is the author, most recently, of the travel memoir All Over the Map, which comes out in paperback this month.