Helping Mom die

Flight #12 had not even left the gate in San Francisco yesterday before the conversation was underway. The man in seat #16F was talking to his new friend in #16E about his trip: another of many undertaken by himself and his siblings to their mother’s home in the long process of packing up, sorting through, tossing out, agonizing over. The scene is a familiar one to millions of Americans: aging, often isolated mom; far-flung, often cash-strapped, over-stressed children; a bewildering assortment of issues to be dealt with, ranging from health to housing to family dynamics.

I, of course, am the mom. Well, not #16F’s mom, and currently in good health and of relatively sane mind. But 76, with children across the continent and a dizzying amount of Stuff to be dealt with if my husband should have the crass inconsideration to die first and leave me to deal with it. (Actually, he’s been very good about making arrangements for disposition of his Stuff, but still, there are those piles and boxes and shelves of miscellany and cupboards of chipped dishes. And closets full of clothes from the 1950s and still perfectly wearable… but I digress.)

My sisters and I were fortunate that our dad looked after our mom as she slowly died, swearing they had a fine conversation the night before although dementia had long stolen her ability to converse; my father created his own realities. Twenty years later, the town of Ashland, VA, with the assistance of Randolph-Macon College, looked after our dad, because indeed it takes a village. But fewer and fewer of us have the traditional village, and more and more of us have the complications: dementia, physical issues, personal problems, too little financial and emotional resources, too much Stuff.

There is help. There are community centers and assisted living arrangements, there is the new Villages concept (more about that one in the next week or so) and an array of other anti-isolationist possibilities; there are nonprofits of every sort, from the Family Caregiver Alliance to multiple physical/emotional-needs groups to my alltime favorite, in name at least, the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization. God willing, we may even get health care, but thanks to those earlier, similar battles we at least now have Medicare and Medicaid.

But too many of us still put it all off, and it falls to the children. We cling to the past in the form of too many boxes of old photos and letters and opera programs; we drive too long and invite fender-benders or worse; we think that old chair is worth too much for a garage sale; we forget to take the pills.

The issue, of course, is not about dying; it’s about living. Living as well as possible for as long as possible, as closely as possible to what we would choose for ourselves. But here’s what happens eventually: mom dies. It’s tough, but it’s probably okay.

I gave my card with the True/Slant website on it to the nice people in #16E and #16F; maybe they’ll check in. When I get back home, though, I think I’ll clean out some files.


  1. Excellent post, Fran, and it clearly strikes a chord. My siblings and I are so fortunate that my parents decided on their own to move to a Westminster-Canterbury life-care community where at ages 91 and 84, they live a happy and full live. It forced them to downsize, and they are finally ready to sell their home, so we’ve downsized even more. I’ve helped them write notes to put on different things so we children will know their provenance. We’re lucky to have this time with alert, elderly parents to do this.

    1. Congratulate your folks for me, Elizabeth. Downsizing is good, notes about provenance etc are great. Life-care communities are also the right answer for many. I’m visiting my sister, newly moved from long-time home in Boston to a retirement community in Ithaca, in a few days so maybe I’ll pick up a tip or two.

  2. It’s not an easy conversation to initiate with your parent(s) — telling them what you’d like to own. Some are fine with that, others not so much. My mom has promised me a portrait of my great-grandmother but my Dad keeps dancing around the specifics.

    1. My soapbox is most often aimed at the parents, because it’s sooo much easier when one is asked, “What do you think you’d like to have?” or “Would you like to have this?” So I’m with your mom on the promise and hope your dad will quit with the dancing around. Something about being confronted with one’s mortality may be creeping in. It happens.

  3. Fran, when we cleared out my mother’s basement, my brother said, “Why do you want any of it? It will just go from her basement to yours.”

    He was right. I could have saved myself the trouble of moving it 1,000 miles and ditched it right there!

    Looking around now, I wonder what, if anything, will have meaning to my kids. It’s a tough call–sentiment pulls, especially with objects that remind me of those I loved (and my children never knew)–but sanity says: Pare down!

    1. Here’s one good guideline, Susan: When cleaning oout my dad’s house I called upstairs to my sister about keeping something and she said, “Is it bigger than a breadbox? If not, no thanks.”

      1. Well there goes the rocking chair carved by my great-great-grandfather, and the doll’s crib too!

  4. Likewise- the stuff from my parent’s house that went to my Mom’s apartment in boxes, then those boxes picked through and repacked into fewer smaller boxes that now sit in my basement.
    I’ve got stacks of photographs of distant relatives long since passed and who I cannot even identify, much less their descendants- its stuff stored that I want to pass along to those who would really want them, but just don’t know who.
    Absolutely, plan for who gets what- and photographs may be the most precious things of all to give to the right recipients.

    1. Once, in an AIDS support group meeting with a bunch of guys, most of whom were dying, the very wonderful Ed said he had had a marvelous two days past. He had gotten down all his boxes of photos and written names, dates & comments on the backs of every one, including the “Great heavens, I wonder where in the world was this” ones. After he died, his daughter told me going through those boxes was the best gift he could’ve left. She enclosed photos with notes to his friends (including one to me) and it became a gift that kept on giving.

  5. I like this piece Fran, as a son who has said goodbye to both parents, packed up their Vermont home, rented it for awhile and eventually sold it, and as a Boomer starting to think (gulp) of down-sizing and retirement. I’ll look forward to your work.

  6. Makes me think of George Carlin: The whole meaning of life is trying to find a place for your stuff.

    My mom moved from a house to an apartment, so now she has apartment-sized stuff.

    And you’ve just reminded me of the boxes of stuff my brother, sister and I took from the house, still in storage a year later. Sigh. I gotta go get that stuff and find a place for it.

  7. hey fran. . great post! – especially considering we just went through that with mom last year and are dealing w/homehealth care with dad. take care

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