By Cindy Miller
Recently, my husband and I made the decision to move into a retirement community. At 65 years of age, the decision was not made lightly, realizing it will be our forever home. For the two of us and those from our generation, senior living is not thought of the same way as it was for our parents and grandparents. Our move was a gateway to finding our best lives. We better understand the importance of social engagement as a critical component to a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling life. An abundance of opportunities for weekly physical and mental activities, whether it is yoga, exercise classes, swimming, boxing, balance and strength workouts or a competitive ping pong, billiards or game night was a welcome change in our lives. The lessening of overall stress has already made a real difference for us, with no surprise costs or maintenance to worry about, weekly housekeeping, and various dining options, it feels like we live in a resort. My husband will work longer than he had planned to because of the work life balance we found here.
Yes, we are on the younger side, but we believe not for long as many of our friends are seeking the same living for the same reasons. In talking to other residents here, they convey that it was more difficult for them, at 75, 80 plus years to make that decision. For some that decision was made for them because of declining health or an unfortunate fall. An overwhelming answer to what delayed their decision was simply “what to do with all my stuff” a lifetime of collecting, inheriting and cherishing items. My mother is an example of what happens over a lifetime, she and my father inherited many items from both their parents and even grandparents, and she then inherited from an older sister and an aunt she was particularly close to. Now those items fill a three-level farmhouse, spilling out into a large garage. Her attachment to some of these things is admirable, she treasures the connection to family members and the memories they hold. I also realize that my mother, a child born on the tail of the Great Depression, is reluctant to throw anything away just in case, someone needs it someday.
For my 83-year-old mother, her house of stuff would be a major obstacle in making a transition to an assisted living home, if that becomes necessary, her house and belongings will remain as they are until her death. The huge task of dealing with them will be left to myself and my three siblings, all who have busy lives. On the other end of this, is our daughter, an attorney with her own law firm, both her home and office are nearby. She is an only child and with that, inherits all the responsibility for her aging parents which may be easier at times than navigating with a committee of siblings. We sought her input, when we chose to buy into a plan that would not leave this home to her upon our death, rather without long term care insurance, we were buying into securing a place with transitional healthcare options.
Her answer was clear and concise, “I don’t want a home to inherit, a house to clear out, to then be faced with maintenance and readying the home for a sale.” A few months later she adds, “You’ve given me a gift. You both made this decision and not left it to me to persuade your two strong personalities years from now to make this move. You moved yourselves, did the work while you were able to, made this home just the way you wanted, with a view you had only dreamed of.”
A move like ours take organization, planning and thought. It takes an overwhelming desire to choose living life over living through things because those items are not the memories, themselves. Letting go of items doesn’t let go of the memory that is attached to that loved one or that moment spent together. During the move, I lifted the faded blue dress from my kindergarten graduation out of my hope chest. I knew that it was time to let it go, that it would hold no meaning to my daughter without at least a point of reference. Yet something tugged at me as I remembered sixty years ago being fitted for it at the neighbor lady’s house. I decided to cut a small piece of the fabric and petticoat, gluing that and the tag on the back of the neck that said it was hand sewn for me beside the black and white photograph in our photo album where I stood proud as can be, skinny legs and all, a kindergarten graduate. I will appreciate it much more in coming years as we look through our photo albums than I have stored in the chest over the years.
The point is that there are lots of ways to preserve memories without taking up space in our homes. I am partial to the idea of taking a photo of items, even when dividing keepsakes with family, take a photo of what you’re not taking home, but they are. If there ends up being enough for a small album, preserve them there with a description of where it came from, a date, even a memory associated with it. I plan to do so with my mother’s things.
Neighbors down the hall from us recall how when they were purging their home to make the move here, their daughter-in-law said with a laugh “We don’t want to visit you now because you keep trying to send your stuff home with us.” Over the summer it became clear during the move that our daughter was not interested in absorbing our items that we needed to get rid of while trying to make ourselves feel better by repurposing through her. We came to realize that she has her own things and over time, she will cherish special items that we leave behind. We believe that her generation and those coming behind her, simply do not want or need all our stuff anymore than we can absorb our parents’ households. Unless there is a personal memory attached to an item for her, it may not carry the same significance. I cannot expect my daughter to appreciate my grandma’s wishing well cookie jar the same way that I do, hearing the five-year-old me saying to Grandma “Wish I had a cookie.” Now that it has a resting place in my contemporary kitchen, where I am honoring it, our daughter will see it, remember and it may hold a more special place for her someday. During my own experience and while helping my sister purge her basement this summer, we found that the items you decide to keep become more cherished.
It has become clear in just a few short months, that our daughter is enjoying seeing her parents begin to live their best lives, especially after those few years of Covid isolation. She has expressed she no longer worries like she did when she didn’t see us breaking out of that isolation. Instead, we see more of her, often coming to our 5th floor home for a glass of wine and then downstairs to dinner. Each time she is perplexed with an overwhelming feeling that she doesn’t want to leave the beautiful senior living campus, we now call our home, saying, “There’s something about this place.” Maybe we have given her a gift and it had nothing to do with our stuff.
Cindy Miller and her husband, Jeff have been married 46 years and reside at Montereau in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They have one daughter, Jamie Miller, Esq.