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Should you pester your parents to move near family?

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Long-distance caregiving is tough. Adult children often worry about how their aging parents are doing, especially if the distance is so great that the family only gets together once or twice a year. This often leads to the kids, with the best of intentions, pressuring their parents to move closer to them. It seems natural, since the parents aren't tied down by jobs and children in school. But is it right for the parents?

I live on the Northern Plains, where winters are about as harsh as they get without going to Alaska. We are known to offer a good quality of life for families, with low crime, good schools, choices in higher education and neighborly people. We are also known to have deep snow, icy streets and howling winds a good portion of the time between Halloween and Easter. Not a pretty picture for a new retiree with aching joints and a hankering for warmth and sun.

For this reason, there are areas in the south eastern and south western parts of the United States where people who were once neighbors up north gather in their elder years for little reunions. We call these people snowbirds. They fly or drive south for the cold winter months, with some returning for our relatively pleasant summers. This practice makes long-distance caregiving a large issue for adult children up north. They often want Mom and Dad to come back home so they can be monitored.

However, it isn't only snowbirding that separates families.

A Mobile Society and Elder Care

We are, in general, a mobile society. Many times, the elders have remained in their home town with the children finding jobs hundreds of miles away. Either way, there is often pressure, as the parents age, to get them to move closer to their children.

On the surface, this sounds like a logical solution. Adult children look around for a condominium or a nice assisted living center near their home. If their parents would only move into this nice place, everyone could keep an eye on them!

However, after coordinating this wonderful scheme and presenting it to the parents with great expectations, many adult children are shocked to learn that their parents have dug in their heels. They refuse to move. They like their home, they like their neighbors, they like their church and they like their doctor. They see no reason to move back to a cold climate, or to a strange town, just because their kids live there. This is when, as an elder care columnist, I hear the whining.

Why Won't My Parents Move Closer to Me?

The kids just can't see it. Why won't Mom and Dad move? My answer to them is, as most answers on elder care, imperfect. Every family is different. Every situation is different. Yes, it would be good if kids lived close enough to their parents to monitor their aging parents' health. It would even be nice for the grandchildren to see more of their grandparents. But what the kids forget is that where the parents now live has been home to their parents for decades, if not a lifetime. They are attached on a level that makes any type of move upsetting, if not terrifying.

I tell my readers that it boils down to this: are your mother and father mentally competent to make their own decisions? They do have rights, as adults, to decide where they will live. It may be inconvenient for you. It is likely frustrating. But they do have the right to make this choice. I advise them to go slow. Check out in-home care agencies where their parents live. Check out the senior center. Go to the aging services section of the state's Web site and see what services are offered.

Then, let them be.

As time moves forward, you can educate yourself about available care options in your parents' area. Make use of what help you can get for them. It's likely, after one of the parents get's dementia, has a stroke or is widowed, the healthy parent may be more willing to move close to the kids. But even then, some would rather stay among their friends from church and their neighborhood. Even then, you may have problems convincing them to move.

I had an elderly friend who finally gave in to her son's wish that she move out of state to be with them. They found her a wonderful apartment. They gave her all of the love a close family can give. But she was so lonely for her friends and her former life that she sank into depression. It wasn't long before she faded away. She died. Be careful what you push on your elder.

Make sure that, if at all possible, they are part of the decision making process. In trying to make things easier for everybody, you need to be careful you don't take away your parents' lives.