Outside view of Masonicare housing.

Talking with Aging Parents about Downsizing

Susan is a typical adult child who is worried about having a conversation about downsizing with her aging parents. “For years I wanted to talk about it but they clearly didn’t,” explains Susan, age 59. As time went on and her parent's physical health and strength diminished, her worries grew. “For years I was afraid they would trip down the basement stairs. They didn’t have a walk-in shower. Household maintenance and chores were a struggle. By the time they did move, they were much frailer which made moving that much harder.”

Unfortunately, Susan and her parents are not alone. Nearly 70% of households age 85 and over live in homes that lack essential features that would let them live safely, a recent study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard found. They also found that only one-third of homes in the U.S. have basic accessibility features, such as a no-step entry into the home and a bedroom and full bath on the first floor. Even fewer have such crucial features as a fully accessible kitchen or doorways wide enough to handle a wheelchair.

Even when a home is retrofitted to help someone “age in place,” it still can become very isolating. Often older people become a prisoner in their own home, not seeing others for days if they have no activities or incentive to do so.

So how can loving, concerned families help parents not miss the window of opportunity to downsize and move forward to a higher quality of life? Talk about it –– together.

Don’t Go it Alone

Yes, it might be an awkward subject to bring up. But if you’re starting to worry about your parents, open the conversation now. The best time to make changes is well before a crisis happens.

Because these are often emotional conversations, it's important not to go it alone. Before the discussion with your parents, speak with other family members, such as your siblings and your spouse. Since not everyone is going to agree on the same approach, it's important to resolve your differences before you speak with your parents. This way you can present a united front when you decide to have the conversation.

Respect Your Parents’ Dignity and Independence 

Just because you want what's best for your parents, doesn't necessarily mean you know what's best for your parents. It's important to speak to your parents as equals and include them in the planning process. This requires truly listening to how they feel, compromising, and coming up with a plan together.

Be Compassionate

When dealing with heavy issues, ask your parents how they feel about the topic or any concerns they have about their future. Also, take into consideration the loss they may be feeling and the fears they have about growing old. Assure them that you want what's best for them, and let them know that you hear and understand them.

Learn from the Experts

A thoughtful and useful guide to talking with and caring for your parents is Necessary Conversations: Between Adult Children And Their Aging Parents by family counselor Gerald Kaufman. Necessary Conversations is filled with stories and examples from many families, most with different life circumstances, but all facing these same issues. The chapters end with "Getting Started," a list of suggestions for action, as well as "Questions" for focusing on practical outcomes to the discussions. 

So don’t put off having the conversation about downsizing with your aging parents. Feel confident you can find the right words and the right place for the ones you love!