“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, and her only daughter, my first cousin, died at 20. So I went to Florida to help her move from a large 2-bedroom apartment to a retirement community.
Betty had moved into the community on Monday, taking only two suitcases. New furniture had been purchased for the apartment, because she had brought none with her when she moved from Philadelphia 8 years earlier. My job was to help her go through her belongings at the old apartment, identify what she wanted, and have it brought to the retirement community. In short, I needed to help her sort through and downsize. No problem. After all, I am a Senior Move Manager. But I am also, I discovered, a niece, and throughout the weekend, these 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 40-inch tall lamp that was still in its shipping box from 8 years ago. “Well, not enough to use it for the past 8 years,” I replied. She laughed and said, “You’re right.” These interactions – I refer to them as reality checks– were easy, because they did not diminish her as a person.
It was 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 aid, is with her 6 days per week. I couldn’t say to her, “Betty, you haven’t made a meal for yourself in months. “ She does not need to be reminded that reality is cruel. It was similar when we went through clothing 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 memories and images of ourselves need to be preserved as who we once were.
Even though much of what she wanted to take would never we 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 the Senior Move Manager in me accepted that. Later that day we met with a Move Management colleague whose staff would handle the packing and transport of clothing and other items after I left. When I took my colleague aside and said, “If you find any clothing that is torn or stained, discard it,” I was horrified. I would never say that about a client’s belongings! Suddenly, I was no longer a Senior Move Manager, I was a family member. 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.
As it turns out, the next day was when the roles of Senior Move Manager and family member most collided. I had arrived Saturday morning and Betty and I had worked throughout the weekend. It was 8 PM Sunday evening when we arrived at her new apartment with a load of pictures and other items in the car. Since Betty walks very slowly, I dropped her at the door and suggested that she start toward her second floor apartment while I unloaded everything onto the hotel dolly kept in the lobby for such purposes. 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, I was no longer the Senior Move Manager; I was family.
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.
The Senior Move Manager in me emerged again as I reflected on what I had seen and inadvertently, caused. Betty had moved on Monday, a transition that was both hard and emotional. She barely had time to adjust to her new environment, when I swooped in and created two incredibly long, emotional days. I was exhausted; I can’t imagine what she must have felt like. As a Move Manager, I know that stress, emotions 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, what I had observed Sunday night was Betty 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 next sentence, she was confused 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 stress and emotions of 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 responded. “I think you are about 90% of the Betty I know, and that’s OK with me.” Betty smiled. I think being 90% of Betty was OK with her, too.