By Margit Novack | “Margie dear, I am moving and I need your help.”
So began the call from my 91-year-old Aunt Betty. Never mind that I have used my real name, Margit, for 38 years. To Aunt Betty, I will always be Margie. Betty has buried three husbands. Her only daughter, my first cousin, died at 20. So I went to Florida to help her move. This was a different sort of move than she’d ever been through before, but one that many if not most of us will sooner or later face. Betty was going from a large two-bedroom apartment to a retirement community.
She had moved into the community before I arrived, taking only two suitcases. My job was to help her go through her belongings at the old apartment, identify what she wanted, and have it brought to her new home. In short, I needed to help her sort through and downsize.
On its face, the job did not intimidate me. My business is helping older adults downsize and relocate. I am, as we call it in the trade, a senior-move manager. But I am also a niece, and as I discovered throughout the weekend, those two different roles collided.
Like many of my clients, Aunt Betty had a hard time parting with items I knew she would never use. Sometimes I could cajole her into letting something go.
“But I loved this lamp,” she said, pointing to a three-and-a-half-foot tall floor lamp that was still in its shipping box from eight years ago, when she’d moved from Philadelphia.
“Well, not enough to use it for the past eight years,” I replied.
She laughed. “You’re right,” she said, confronting the reality-check. This was the easy stuff. Admitting that it might be time to say goodbye to something that’s spent years in packing peanuts didn’t diminish her as a person.
It got harder when we looked at large serving dishes.
“I may have a dinner party,” she said.
Betty is very frail. She uses a walker and qualifies for independent living only because Bea, her aide, is with her six days per week. Yet I couldn’t say to her, “Betty, you haven’t made a meal for yourself in months.” She didn’t need to be reminded that reality is cruel.
And reality is rarely crueler than when it comes to a woman’s clothing, as we soon did. We looked at outfits she insisted she might wear someday. I couldn’t remind her that she wears only pants with elastic waists so she can pull them up herself, and that they need to be full enough to accommodate the disposable underwear she now uses. Some parts of our self-image need to be preserved, to give us continuity with who we once were.
Even though much of what she wanted to take would never be worn or used, I knew there was space for it in the new apartment. Her decisions didn’t have to be perfect or wise, but they were her decisions, and I accepted that.
Later that day we met with a colleague of mine whose staff would handle the packing and transportation of clothing and other items after I left. I took my colleague aside and said, “If you find any clothing that is torn or stained, discard it.” For a moment I was horrified. I would never say that about a client’s belongings! The ease with which I had lost professional objectivity and slid into expediency was alarming. Yet I understood why adult children are so often pulled in this direction. They’re coping with their own mixed feelings about their evolving role and added responsibilities, as well as with changes they see in their parents. When expediency wins, it’s not from lack of concern, it’s from lack of time.
The next day brought that fact home to me more forcefully.
I had arrived Saturday morning and Betty and I had worked throughout the weekend. It was 8 p.m. on Sunday evening when we arrived at her retirement community with a load of pictures and other items in the car. Since Betty walks very slowly, I dropped her off at the door and suggested that she start toward her second-floor apartment while I unloaded everything onto the hotel dolly in the lobby. When I reached the apartment 15 minutes later, there was no answer. Worried, I began walking through the hallways. I found Betty on the first floor.
“I got lost, I couldn’t find my apartment,” she said. “Then I got so tired, I had to sit down.”
“Your apartment number is on your walker and also on the keys around your neck,” I gently reminded her.
“I know, but I just couldn’t figure it out,” she said. And then I realized it: I was no longer the professional, I was family—and though it may sound odd, family members can have the hardest time recognizing what their aging grandmother, or father, or aunt really need. Like so many family members, I had come in for a weekend determined to get things done in the time frame I had allotted, and I had put my need for productivity ahead of Betty’s need to rest or enjoy my visit. I wanted to be finished; Betty wanted us to have time to talk.
I reflected on the difficult weekend I had overseen. Betty had moved on Monday, a transition that was both physically and emotionally demanding. She barely had time to adjust to her new environment when I swooped in and orchestrated two incredibly long, emotionally fraught days. I was exhausted. I can only imagine how she must have felt. As a professional, I know that stress and anxiety take a particular toll on seniors, a toll that often manifests as memory loss and disorganized thinking. Whatever cognitive status Betty had before the move, by Sunday night she was operating under the worst conditions. I had caused it, and I should have known better.
When I visited Betty Monday morning, I apologized for exhausting her so much over the weekend.
“Oh honey, I just feel so badly that you worked so hard,” she said.
And there she was, the Betty I knew, parenting me, rewarding me for coming down to help. Yet in her very next sentence, she betrayed confusion about whether she was in Florida or Philadelphia. The juxtaposition of the old Betty and the new Betty was sobering.
In the days that followed, I alerted family members who might call that Betty might not be herself for a while. I explained that the move had taken a toll, and that with time, I was hopeful she would rebound and be more like her old self. And in fact, in recent phone conversations, she has sounded more like herself.
Yet Betty is aware that she has changed. “My memory has gotten so bad,” she said recently, clearly disturbed. “I am not the person I used to be.”
To dispute what she knows to be true would be condescending. I want her to know that even if her cognitive status is changing, she is still the same person to me, and that I still love her.
“I have noticed a change from months ago,” I told her. “I think you are about 90 percent of the Betty I know, and that’s okay with me.”
Betty smiled. I think being 90 percent of Betty was okay with her, too.
Margit Novack CW’71 GCP’75 is the founding president of the National Association of Senior Move Managers, which provides a national database of members. Members must be insured and agree to abide by the NASMM Code of Ethics. For more information, go to www.nasmm.org.