4 Guidelines for Helping Aging Parents and Clutter Clearing

You may have noticed that I’ve been missing from action the past few weeks. I have been caught up in the challenging and complicated process of helping my mother transition from independent living to assisted living. I’m back now, and want to share some of what I’ve learned from that process.

This past month was a very difficult time because of a decline in my mother’s cognitive and physical functioning. It became clear to me that Mom was no longer safe living alone. It was time to help Mom transition to assisted living. I knew this time would come, but I dreaded it because I knew my mother would resist that option with all her might. To make things really challenging, Mom has dementia that made it difficult for her to be aware of the full extent of her decline and unable to remember the various incidences, like falls and running into her garage door with her car, that indicate that she needed more help.

Last week Mom moved to an assisted living facility for a 30 day trial that I hope will extend to the rest of her life. Getting to this point in a loving way has been as complicated a challenge as anything I have ever done. But, the difficult times always provide numerous opportunities for learning, healing and growth. Here are some of the things I’ve learned. I share these with you in hopes that they will be of benefit to you if you need them at some point on your journey, or that you will pass them on to others who might benefit from them.

Focus on the benefits of the change instead of the reasons why the change must happen.

Because of dementia and pride in her independence, Mom was unable to self-assess and reach a conclusion that she needed more help. Pointing out aspects of her decline only made her more defensive and determined to convince me she was still in good shape. When I shifted to telling her what she could enjoy in the new setting, like having much more time with me, being able to try many different restaurants, having adventures like going to the Pet Expo, and visiting with old friends, her defensiveness dropped and she began to imagine the possibility of a new life that might have more access to people and activities that matter to her.

Focus on what you love about the person and keeping her safe instead of on changing the behaviors that scare you, bother you, or want to make you run away.

Mom repeated how much she loved where she lived and that she didn’t want to leave. She stubbornly resisted using a cane. She kept forgetting why she could no longer drive a car. She put plastic dishes in the oven even after being told it isn’t safe. Initially I felt annoyed and scared by those behaviors, but fussing at her only put me at odds with her and didn’t change her behavior. So, I reminded myself that the behaviors were happening because of the effects of the dementia and her fear of change. Each time I responded to her I reminded myself to come from a loving place and remember that I cannot change her behavior. I then looked for what I could do that would be helpful in the moment. When Mom said she didn’t want to leave her home, I agreed that leaving her beautiful home with it’s privacy and beautiful water view would be difficult, that change is hard, but that change can bring other new, wonderful opportunities into her life. When she forgot why she couldn’t drive, I described the five incidents that led to her decision to give her keys to me. When it was clear that she couldn’t remember how to use the microwave and couldn’t remember not to use the oven for plastic dishes, against her objections I arranged for a Visiting Angel to come in the evening to heat up her dinner.

Focus on the facts, not the feelings.

I felt scared that Mom could fall, break a hip, and end up in a nursing home–her worst nightmare. I felt angry that she stubbornly asserted that she was OK when clearly she was not. I felt sad that I was losing her to dementia, and mad that I was having to deal with such a sad, difficult situation with someone I love so much. But, I quickly learned that when I communicated with Mom from the vulnerable place of my feelings, out of fear or anger, I was met with debate, resistance, and her feelings of outrage and anger. When I began calmly stating facts about her car accidents, about the changes in her mobility like balance problems and difficulty getting in and out of her car, facts that could not be disputed, not only was I able to better manage my myriad of feelings, but Mom had nothing to push back against. Feelings can be questioned, blown off, and misinterpreted. Facts are facts.

Keep moving forward even if you don’t know where you’ll end up or how you’ll get there.

I knew Mom would find assisted living facilities unappealing, but I took her to see two of them. During the visits she kept asserting that she was going to continue to live in her home. But in the process I learned that she did like one of the people who gave us a tour. That was a positive anchor in this difficult situation. In further communication with him I learned that there was an apartment located on the ground floor near the dining room and mailboxes, a location that would make it easy for Mom to find her way to those important places. It seemed like the perfect place for Mom who can become very disoriented when in unfamiliar environments.

I also spoke to my dad, my mother’s ex-husband of over 30 years, and shared my concerns and ideas about how to help Mom. He offered to speak with her if I thought it would help. Since they have stayed friendly over the years, and he’s a doctor whose opinion she might respect more than mine, I took him up on his offer. At age 84 he drove eleven hours to meet with Mom. During his visit with Mom he came up with the idea of doing a one month trial in an assisted living facility to see if it’s something she might enjoy. He also suggested leaving her home as is in case she decides that she doesn’t like the change. His option of a trial stay instead of a permanent move was what it took to shift Mom from refusing ti move into an assisted living facility to being willing to give it a try. When I asked for Dad’s help, I had no idea that he would come up with the idea that would break through Mom’s wall of resistance.

I gave up thinking I had to know and see the whole path to Mom’s journey to a safer place, and instead read the signals each step of the way, making the best decisions I could from a loving place. Movement in a positive direction begat more movement.

You may be thinking, “What does this have to do with clutter clearing?”

  • If you focus on the benefits of clutter clearing instead of the enormity of the project or how ashamed you are that things have gotten so out of control, you’ll find you are motivated to tackle your clutter challenge instead of feeling overwhelmed by the challenge.
  • If you focus on your strengths and what you love about your gifts and abilities, you’ll boost your confidence and seek solutions instead of focusing on aspects of the project that seem impossible to address.
  • If you focus on facts like, “Is this in good condition?” or “Do I love this or use this?” instead of feelings of annoyance because your family has contributed to your clutter problems, or sadness, embarrassment and shame about once again finding yourself having to dig out from under your clutter, you’ll be able to keep moving instead of shutting down.
  • If you make yourself keep moving when you run into an emotional or decision-making roadblock by shifting focus to an easier task or asking for help, you’ll get the clutter clearing done.

Helping aging parents transition to a safer way of living and clutter clearing are both processes. Each has its challenges and opportunities. I hope you’ll find the principles I’ve shared to be helpful guidelines on your journey.

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