Aging Parents: Cleaning Out Their Home After Death–The Plus-side

Past posts about cleaning out my parents’ home–basically alone–after they died had one purpose: to offer the best, objective, helpful information, dismissing the emotional for the most part. They didn’t emphasize the emotional benefits because I know well that one person’s experience does not qualify as valid for many.

Recent events, however, make me think the emotional benefit for me, could be many people’s experience, although they’re unaware. Left alone in one’s growing-up home with things and memories –and a lot of work seems overwhelming! That said, looking back, it was one of the most precious gifts one can have if we’re fortunate enough to be cast into this position.


My husband is a very organized person who knows how to get things done efficiently and well. After my parents died, we were with a high school friend and her husband, talking about deceased parents’ possessions. The two guys (equally efficient) immediately agreed on what they thought was brilliant.

How about bringing a dumpster to each of our homes (my parents’ home and their home where many of his wife’s parents’ things had been stored for years) and each guy would go to the other’s home and toss out what they thought should go. That way the wives wouldn’t/couldn’t interfere as much and objective thinking would prevail.

Of course that never happened–in either home. And now my husband’s mother is gone and together we have spent time–in 3 separate segments– away from NY, cleaning out unbelievably well-organized, closets, cupboards, and drawers–as well as a large, dusty storage area. (Admittedly I resigned from the latter area …I was sneezing from the dust.)

Currently my husband is out there alone, going through stuff in the dusty area without distractions. Even before “attacking” the storage area, as he came across things from his youth, I could sense the expedient, dumpster appeal was being replaced by another feeling that sets in, taking us back in time. It awakens memories from a time when–if we were fortunate– “father knew best,” mother was home when we came home from school; and questions that arose, after overhearing adult conversations about their friends and relatives, remain mysteries –unless we’re the cleaner-outer.

My husband’s phone call last night about finding his letters sent home from camp and other “treasures” his mother saved from his childhood, elicited–I was sure– the same feelings I had the year before in the west when unearthing things in my parents’ home. It takes time opening envelopes and carefully skimming their contents–to be sure we’re saving important papers, and to be sure we’ve digested every nostalgic morsel. The dumpster would no doubt rob us of this!

Bottom line: Only children have the joy of the above if they choose to take it on.
Advice: If there are siblings, hope that none of them want the job; but share as necessary (there will be memories only a sibling can appreciate) and make certain they participate in equal distribution of all possessions, unless there’s a legal reason to the contrary.

It’s also important to take breaks. If you’re fortunate to still have some good friends living in the area, they no doubt knew your parents, pets, and siblings–adding a specialness if you can get together with them….in which case you’re batting 1000!

Related: Cleaning out Elderly Parents’ Homes after Death or Moving–1
    Cleaning out Elderly Parents’ Homes after Death or Moving–Part 2
    Aging Parents: Letting Go and the Circle of Life (about letting go of the family home)

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities. respected professionals and selected publications–to help parents age well.

Aging Parents: LETTING GO and the CIRCLE OF LIFE–Parents’ Death and Selling the Family Home

Dad and My Childhood best friend

Dad and my childhood best friend after Mom died

Dad died almost 11 years ago. We held onto the family home we grew up in so there would be continuity for my, at-the-time, very young niece. I was certain the home represented needed security and stability for her. I was also  trying my best to soften the loss of “Grandpa,” with whom she spent a great deal of time– often sitting on his lap in his blue recliner.

She was at the house most of the week after he died. When she asked why Grandpa died, I said something to the effect that God wanted Grandpa. An age-appropriate response, right? That 3-year-old memory, I realized, was much better than that of older people who would no doubt have forgotten that conversation. Her request of me several months later: “Would you please call God and ask him to send Grandpa back?”
*              *             *

Memories came back in waves as Dad’s recliner, Mother’s china and various furnishings left our home thanks to the estate sale. Interestingly, they weren’t poignant nor did they engender sadness.

Picnic by the ocean: Mother (79) and me

Picnic by the ocean: Mother (79) and me

I have been asked often during the last week if I felt sad cleaning out the home. My answer: “No.”  Interestingly that was my brother’s answer also. Reminders of past moments and the people who were part of them take me back so many decades. Yet as a far-away-living child I knew my parents’ death was always a possibility and tried to make certain, as they aged, that there would be no unfinished business nor unspoken words as each visit ended.

I also think, as does my brother, that our home deserves a young family with kids–to slide down the banister and discover our hiding places in the big basement. And so I, a sentimental person, have done a pretty good job of letting go–I think.

Moving on happens. It’s difficult to control. Life in my parents’ home is coming full circle.

Family Photos

Family Photos

It will house a new family and children again. And my parents’ last gift to me is this mountain of stuff that–in the going through and reading–has helped make sense of much of my past…and our family’s past.

If your parents should leave you boxes and drawers to clean out, try to muster up the patience (most in my family can’t) to see this is an opportunity to fill in gaps and answer questions. You get to relive your parents as younger, healthy and strong. The illnesses and the caregiving recede. For me, it has provided closure; has made letting go easier; has been priceless.

Aging Parents and Memorial Day 2014


Can we look into the hearts of old people?

Things change. Values change–both at a rapid rate. It’s part of today’s world and we deal with it. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the impact on our elders as we continue with our busy lives. A one-minute video, with no spoken words, looks into the heart of a WWII veteran.

In the old days the name, Memorial Day, and date, May 30th, were carved in stone– or so I thought when I was a girl. I didn’t know that before WWII Memorial Day had been called “Decoration Day,” although I remember hearing that name. The 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act changed “carved-in-stone” dates to days that would allow for a 3-day holiday weekend and took effect in 1971.

We’re accustomed to the 3-day weekends. We take the opportunity to get away for a short vacation. Some think Memorial Day is the start of summer. We have family picnics. There are fewer parades. In our hearts and minds we respect the holiday, see the flags flying, know “Fleet Week” has arrived in New York. But, unless we have family in the military, I doubt we can tap into what Memorial Day means to those who have served–especially those who served over a half century ago, still possessing the memories (told and untold) and the pride.

While that which old people hold dear is disappearing faster and faster, it remains in their hearts. I want to try to remember that as I interact with the elders in my life. Most of us won’t have that special commonality we see between grandfather and grandson in the aforementioned video. We have not experienced their experience.

That said, whether our older family members and friends are enjoying a family picnic, lying in a bed at home or in a care center, Memorial Day offers another chance to bring them pleasure, a chance to enhance their sense of self-worth by showing an interest in their past or asking about Decoration Day.

And for us, we may gather some wisdom and learn some history (possibly priceless family history), while doing our part to help parents and our elders age well. Another win-win!

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
George Santayana. The Life of Reason, Vol 1.

Changing often: “Of Current Interest” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities, plus some fun stuff–to help parents age well.



Sense of Purpose: A Gift for Aging Parents–at Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Beyond

Thanksgivng 2013

I think everyone would agree: having a sense of purpose is essential to feeling good about life. The big question: How do we instill a sense of purpose in aging parents who no longer have it?

Do remember, those who never had it will no doubt never get it–
People Change, Not Much.

I recently read a short blurb about the importance of having sense of purpose. While there’s a chapter in my book about it, I haven’t addressed it directly in my posts. They have focused more on the positive feelings that come from being needed. So here goes–

First, when older people are married, there is someone in their life, whether healthy or sick…there’s purpose. So we’re talking about elders living alone. And it may take more than superficial thinking to instill a sense of purpose in aging parents who have lost it.

Next: Think about parents’ strengths/talents– objective and touchy-feely: eg. dexterity (talent fixing things), cooking, knitting, gardening, musical ability as well as patience, empathy, caring about certain things…. We may need to go back in time, remembering what they enjoyed/cared about when younger.

Then decide: can we renew and/or support sense of purpose?–or does it need to come from somewhere else?

Now: Think creatively and in a macro, big-picture way–for example:

The most universal sense of purpose (the macro) for many will be wanting to maintain independence. What can they do towards that goal?

Example: For Sr. Advisor, R, it has been to keep herself healthy enough to be able to remain in her home. There’s purpose in exercising daily and shopping for her own groceries. The shopping cart provides stability and confidence when walking. Although her shopping takes forever, the entire experience is win-win for her and for us. R gets exercise, uses her brain, makes decisions about needed/wanted food and its cost, and has connections with others…the cashiers know her (told her she was so amazing yesterday, reinforcing self-esteem and good feelings.

Best for us, we can support this–driving R to the grocery store and waiting for her to get what’s on her list–and do our own marketing at the same time. We use our cell phone to take care of other stuff if there’s extra time. If your parent feels, like R, that being on a cell phone is rude, once you know how long a parent’s shopping takes, you needn’t hang around as if they’re not independent enough to be on their own. Ask if they need help, do what’s needed, then wait in the car and go back when you think (s)he’s about finished.

R’s shopping is followed by her putting the groceries away (if they’re heavy, we help) and ultimately cooking for herself and eating healthy.

Additional ways that instill feelings of purpose:
1. Doing for others–volunteering–but it must be meaningful. Old people being with young children in a daycare or school setting can be wonderful. That said, children spread many germs so this won’t work for elders with “ify” immune systems.

2.  Having a pet to care for; but this is can be tricky for older people. A veterinarian offers good information in a past post.

3. Having plants to care for offers an easier alternative to #2 (check out Easy Care Plants)

Thanksgiving is tomorrow as is the first day of Chanukah. Give aging parents a sense of purpose by giving them a task and/or asking for help. I’ve written about the oldest guest stringing the cranberry necklace for the turkey at our Thanksgiving dinners. I’ve written about bringing those in rehab or care facilities home for the holiday meal, including some specific ways aging parents can help.

Lastly, after Thanksgiving brainstorm with friends who have living-alone aging parents for new ideas.

Restoring a sense of purpose is an intangible gift. It helps aging parents feel better, and that makes us feel better.

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Chanukah

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals, plus practical information–to help parents age well.


NYC Sidewalk Display

NYC Sidewalk Display

Halloween is one of those festive holidays. Decorations abound–displays in store windows; on suburban lawns; in New York City’s postage-stamp-size yards, even on the sidewalks of NY outside of two restaurants I passed today.

When our parents are young-old, chronologically or psychologically, they’re usually out and about interacting with others, with plenty of exposure to the black cats, ghosts, witches, pumpkins etc.–at grocery stores and super markets, gas stations and malls–and, of course, bakeries and candy stores.

I remember my parents coming back to visit in late October one year. They were mobile and could drive. They were in their ’70’s. Halloween night stands out, with the excitement that each ring of the doorbell created for these active seniors. With that in mind, I share ideas for involving aging parents in the Halloween fun.

 Invite aging parents to your home to marvel at
the trick-or-treaters’ costumes.

Dad loved answering the door bell’s ring–then seeing the little kids in costume. Their high pitched’ “trick or treat” elicited his compliments about their scary look, great costume etc. They beamed at the compliments as they took their candy. Dad beamed back.  Mother, in the background, seemed happy to replenish the candy supply. She too had a big smile on her face as she watched these excited little kids having such a good time.

It was then I realized what a fun night Halloween could be for older parents at their adult childrens’ homes. From watching the grandchildren get made-up and into costume, to answering the front door and dispensing candy (we had healthier treats in later years), it was pure fun–double fun when the kids come home with their loot to be examined by all.

 Celebrate Halloween with parents at their home

Halloween can make old people living alone, and those who don’t like to go out, apprehensive about the tricks and answering the doorbell. Can an adult child arrange to be at his or her  parents’ home during the trick or treat hours? I know my parents felt stress when the doorbell rang late at night. Older age=feelings of vulnerability…..but we can lessen that on Halloween, making it possible for the old folks to enjoy the kids and costumes while we are at their home (and have possibly provided the treats). And if few children ring the bell, you have been with your parent(s) and that in itself is a gift (as we know).

Take old/older people out for a ride to view the decorations

I wrote 2 posts on short drives with elders– on Halloween in suburbia–viewing the home decorations and lawn displays. A dry run to preview the most festive streets and homes is almost a must.  Seeing the lit displays at night is more dramatic.

Arrange for young children in costume to visit
relatives and friends in care facilities

My brother is probably the oldest father in the PTA. Until last year he loved joining his daughter as she and her friends went trick-or-treating in costume. When she told him last Halloween that she was going to a party with her girlfriends, he said he felt bad not being part of these middle schoolers’ experience any more. Can we take our children, in costume, to brighten up the lives of people where “trick or treat” no longer happens?

Take a pumpkin to the care facility

An option to the quick decorated pumpkin as a gift for someone–whether living in a care facility or not–is the hollowed-out pumpkin. Fill small jar with water and use as a vase inside empty pumpkin. Just add some chrysanthemums. They’ll think you came from the florist. And it will brighten up any room.

Holidays provide opportunities we can take advantage of– to jump-start aging parents and add some joy to their lives.

Related: Gifting Easily-decorated Halloween Pumpkins With Flowers and Whimsey Lifts Spirits of Aging Parents and Care-Center Elders 

                Halloween Treats (no tricks) for Aging Parents, Grandparents–Us Too! Includes going for rides to see displays and decorations–city and suburban
Halloween Front Yard

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from respected universities–plus some fun stuff–to help parents age well.

100th Birthday –later that day

Birthday Don’t know who attached the birthday balloon* to R’s mailbox, but there it was as we drove up to R’s home Friday. Entering her home we were greeted with a table filled with cards, flowers, and tiny cupcakes and cookies.  Over 65 cards, 8 flower arrangements, a few thoughtful gifts. And there had been countless phone calls.


Click to enlarge

The “100” card below (also enlarged in photo below that) is from the owner of a construction company who has been doing work on R’s home for over 40 years–as did his dad before him. Now a grandfather, in his early 70’s, I doubt his wife is jealous as she’s a fan too.

The message is typical of those R received.


They say “what comes around, goes around.” Sincere interest in, doing for, and caring  about– others, clearly benefits the recipients. We also see the outcome for the “giver.” (And remember that’s a word that follows “care.”)  Priceless in so many ways.

*Balloon was attached with a large plastic clothes pin–very easy to detach. Some still-unknown person appears sensitive to making things easy and happier for old people.

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities, selected publications and respected professionals–to help parents age well.

Specific Thanksgiving Gifts Help Parents and Grandparents Age Well

When I think Thanksgiving, I think Family Togetherness and the many opportunities–gifts actually– to engage, stimulate, connect, enhance self-worth and share love

Three gifts, incorporate the above in various ways and encourage elders’ help

1. Being with family is what aging parents and grandparents say they want most. Stimulation and Connections with Others top the list of factors that help people age well and doesn’t being with family provide this?

To that end, as a far-away-living child, some of my most cherished moments (now memories) are the evenings before many Thanksgivings that I had elders help Into the wee hours of the night,. Mother, my husband’s mother, and I came to the kitchen in our bathrobes and talked while preparing everything we could ahead of time. Until our parents were in their mid-80’s, they flew back east to us to be with us. Later we celebrated in the west, continuing our night-before tradition…even after Mother’s stroke she was able to help in smaller ways.

2. Having feelings of self-worth and competency affirmed. (It’s great to feel useful.)
–Older people can check that the table is set correctly and put out place cards if used.
–They can bring a “dish” that they make–or buy.
–Ask an elder (we ask the oldest with steady hands) to string a cranberry necklace to adorn the turkey (provide string thread, and cranberries).
–Ask for small help in the kitchen.
–If there’s a creative person among the older generation, ask him/her to make the table centerpiece and you can provide flowers, fruits, nuts, vegetables, container and candles when appropriate.
–Some older people just want to hang out in the kitchen and be part of it. Even when almost-90-year-old Mary inadvertently placed a plastic bag on a hot, open oven door and we quickly pulled most of it off–it became a laughable story (not a mini-disaster) for years.
–Some older mothers still want to do it all. Let them, assuming no threat to life and limb exists.  A friend’s 83-year-old mother and father make an annual visit. Her mother cooks/bakes everything; won’t let her daughter or son-in-law in the kitchen, they say. Her daughter’s contribution: the grocery shopping.
–Dad was one of those capable elders who liked to help clean up–with a dish towel, like in the olden days. He always stayed to dry the hand-washed things…a sweet time together for the two of us.

3. Feeling/being valued for wisdom and experience–by caring and loving family members (who show respect for the past).
–We can ask elders to share stories/memories of their childhood and our childhood.
–We can learn about our roots by asking specific questions.
–We can benefit from questions requiring their wisdom.
–We can ask elders to identify people in photos or old photo albums that have become ours.
–We can make memories for all family members if we take, print-out and/or email photos of this Thanksgiving to them (an idea–if framed– for a Christmas/Chanukah gift).

The intangible gifts for our elders are countless, limited only by our creativity (or lack thereof–which is fine–no one’s perfect). In our efforts to help parents and grandparents age well, as my husband’s grandmother said when we tried our best, “Angels can do no more.”