When Priorities Make an Unexpected Shift in Your Life
In the spring of 2018, my mom had what the medical community calls an “event.” She went to the hospital for what I understood to be a routine endoscopy to deal with some GI issues. During the procedure, she had a stroke that left her unresponsive, unable to speak, and unable to move the left side of her body.
I was in Albuquerque, 2000 miles away. In bed with the flu. My mom’s sister was in Florida at the time and although she had her own plate full dealing with my uncle’s health issues, she was able to liaise and get me up to date. The news was not good.
My mom was a few months shy of her 94th birthday, and had never had any health issue remotely like this. My aunt said it was like she could tell “someone was in there,” but confirmed that this was not how my mom wanted to live.
That night, I got a call from a cardiologist to let me know that my mom was “in an active heart attack,” and asking for DNR (do not resuscitate) authorization. It was reassuring to know that Mom and I had had these hard conversations and had the paperwork taken care of a couple years before, but holy shit! In that moment, it’s like the world just stops.
It was reassuring to know that Mom and I had had these hard conversations and had the paperwork taken care of a couple years before, but…
No, I don’t want her intubated. No, do not break her ribs. Yes, treat her medically. Yes, let her go if it’s her time. Oh, and by the way, stop talking about MY MOTHER like she’s a car with a bad transmission!
I was a mess.
A surprise call
I slept with the phone in my bed. I haven’t had a landline in my bedroom in decades, long before cell phones, and for the past couple of years, I try to clear out all electronics unless I fall asleep reading my Kindle. So on a normal night, no phones.
Of course this was anything but a normal night and I figured a call could come from the hospital at any time. The phone rang at 5:30: a palliative care doctor, name of Kravitz.
I was awake in a second, alert for what I thought would be the worst possible news. But Dr. Kravitz says, “I was just talking with your mom.” I’m awake but confused. ”You were talking about my mom?” I ask. “No,” he assures me. “She was just telling me about some Kravitzes who lived in your neighborhood back in New Jersey.
Somehow my mom went from needing DNR clearance to playing Jewish Geography in less than 12 hours? What the hell?! Delighted, if a bit disoriented, we went on to discuss the next step. In his estimation, Mom was “a good candidate for rehab.” Well, damn!
The good doctor tells me to stay home, advising me that I’ll be far more useful when Mom has been through the rehab stint and is ready for whatever is next.
So what does come next?
I spent a lot of time on the phone while Mom was in rehab. I knew she was safe where she was and if I pushed hard enough, could get some updates from the staff. The missing piece was when she was going to be released and when I got to talk to someone there, no one seemed to express any sense of any urgency or immediacy. I found out from my mom, around the end of April, that there was a plan in place to release her the next day!!
From all accounts, she had improved dramatically, but was in no way ready to be back at the condo on her own. A frantic flurry of phone calls to the rehab center with mixed messages with no arrangements in place. (I’m still furious about the lack of communication and how hard it was to get anything out of anybody over there.)
Fortuitously, my mom found a card that had been left with her at some point. I called Stacey, the contact on the card whose work is all about finding appropriate and affordable housing for seniors based on income and need. She works fast and knows everybody, went to visit my mom, and like everyone else I spoke with, assured me there was no way it would be safe or sane for my mom to go back to her place alone.
Stacey managed to get me a 48-hour extension on my mom’s release, and found an open apartment at a decent assisted living place, which required a sizable “entry fee” (non-refundable) and first month’s rent. The place was also completely empty, which meant I had to find some furniture and have it delivered well within those 48 hours!
I don’t think I really grasped that this would end up being a permanent placement. I just needed somewhere for my mom to be safe until I could get there to help sort things out, because as it turned out, that would not be happening for several more weeks yet.
I’ve second-guessed this decision a million times, although it turned out to be for the best. I know she loved living in the condo, and I also know she had become increasingly isolated and inactive there. She had lost many of her friends during the previous year and had dropped out of many of the activities in which she had been fairly active. Plus, although her only prescriptions prior to this incident was a bottle of eye drops, there were too many medical issues, including now being on a complicated regimen of post-recovery meds.
Assisting a difficult transition
I hit my savings to cover her first month plus the entrance fee. I allowed myself to be exploited by Rent-a-Center for the horribly overpriced cheap furniture that I knew she’d hate, sending me an incomprehensible contract with numbers much higher than what they had quoted on the phone. (I didn’t sign it. We ultimately returned nearly all of it what we got there. Sometimes I just had to let myself be ripped off because my mom needed a place to sit and sleep when she got there and from where I sat, there really was no other option.)
I was in a panic much of this time, barely sleeping, and having to make snap decisions with very little information. Not ideal. Dumb things: I found out that the facility provided sheets and pillowcases, but for what size bed? Every one of these questions seemed to require yet another phone call, often several calls, before I could move forward.
I begged someone I knew in the old complex to get Mom some basics from the condo, and after at least two dozen phone calls, managed to get a land line installed. There was also supposed to be Internet service but when I finally got there, I found a modem connected to a wall jack but nothing else. I had gotten my mom a captioning phone, but it was on the other side of the room and couldn’t work without the Internet connection, although I had been assured was working fine when the installers left!
So I had to start all over again, cancelling that first useless and dishonest service (Privatel) and get another provider in there. I went with AT&T, although it took another 9 or 10 phone calls to get to the right person in the right region to set up landline service. When I finally was able to nail someone down, we needed yet another new phone number and ultimately new email account, and a time for installation to occur while I was still in town and could supervise!!
Note: I’m not exaggerating the number of phone calls I had to make. I hate being at the mercy of incompetent people!
In the meantime, my mom, who is normally pretty easy for me to get along with, wasn’t happy about ANY of this. I probably could have done a better job of explaining, but mostly emphasized that I needed to know that she was somewhere with a higher level of care than she would be if she were alone in her condo. I just kept asking her to humor me and let me take care of whatever she needed. For now.
When I finally got to Florida, we were able to sit sat down and discuss a lot of the questions she had. (My financial records were immaculate because they had to be at least as neat and orderly as she still keeps hers!) Getting that info helped her. The next step was dealing with the furniture, which she hated. (Try picking out pieces that would fit in the space based on online photos of a very limited selection at midnight, a day and a half before she’s about to move in and tell me how I could have done this better!)
I knew being in more familiar surroundings would have helped, but here’s the fine line I was walking. Even if it had been possible to have her furniture moved in in the 48 hours I had to get her settled, I did NOT want her to walk into this this assisted living apartment and see her furniture when she first got there. I needed to leave the door open for this to be a temporary placement.
Maybe I was hoping that somehow this could be a short-term gig. Fortunately, by the time I got there, she had been in this new assisted living facility for about six weeks, long enough to get into the routine, meet some new people who genuinely liked her, and most importantly, realize on her own that she needed more structure and help than she would have back at her old place.
We started going over to the condo together to get some clothing and makeup, picking up little things she wanted to make things more comfortable and familiar.
I brought over her coffee maker, microwave, and toaster oven, and a few small things to stock her full kitchen. She helped me select the pieces of furniture she wanted, and I managed to isolate them and empty them out, and text photos and label each piece with instructions for the movers before I had to return home to Albuquerque. Maybe I went overboard, but the movers couldn’t make it until a few days after I left and the last thing I wanted was to have to hire that service more than once.
The shift was much faster than I would have imagined. Once we started moving things to the new place, my mom had pretty much accepted the new place as home, or at least where she needed to be from here on in. Before the week was out, she suggested putting the condo on the market—a conversation I did not expect to have for months.
Progress, and a whole lot of work!
Selling the condo was a whole new thing for me, with loads of details I needed to learn, from the requirements of the condo complex and Florida real estate expenses, to where to take donations in a geographically unfamiliar area, or try to sell what wouldn’t fit in the new place.
I was back and forth between Albuquerque and South Florida for much of the summer and early fall. And if you don’t already know this, Florida heat (“feels like 107°”) and humidity (over 90%) can be brutal even when you’re just sitting around. Having lived in a low-humidity, high-desert environment for the past 38 years made this even harder for me. I felt disgusting and drenched for much of the time I was there.
…no matter how much time I spent trying to set things up on the phone or by text before I went out there, most of what actually got done, ONLY got done when I was physically present.
Also, no matter how much time I spent trying to set things up on the phone or by text before I went out there, most of what actually got done, ONLY got done when I was physically present. What I accomplished from a distance sufficed for a while, but except for the actual placement, nearly everything turned out to be half-assed at best. I really needed to be there, summertime or not.
Deer in the real estate headlights
I have very little experience dealing with the real estate world. We bought our first house on a real estate contract and a handshake, and although the process of buying our current house was slightly more traditional, real estate exchanges in New Mexico seems to be a whole lot less complicated—and less expensive.
So I went in cold and fairly overwhelmed, but I suddenly had several people call ME, most referred by friends in the area. I met with four potential realtors, one of whom fell in love with the place and called the next day with a cash offer and a plan to renovate and flip the place!
A friend with a great deal of real-estate experience advised me to jump on the offer. Since my main goal was to get this property, and all of its related expenses, out of my life as soon as possible, I called her back and we were good to go. There were many hoops to jump through, but everything passed and a date was set up for the closing. Meanwhile…
What do I do with all her stuff?
I know that in my mom’s ideal version of the world, I would have gotten a moving van and taken everything, including all of my grandmother’s furniture, the china and glassware I didn’t need, the knickknacks and artwork, the shelves filled with her art books, the silver I’d never polish or use, even more kitchen stuff than I have in my own house, and the other upscale vestiges of a long, rich life back to New Mexico to use and love, or even sell from there.
I had this moment of insanity where I actually considered this. But even a conservative estimate of the costs of the truck, the hotels and meals along a drive back (which would take close to a week), and insurance, as I took everything to a place where I have absolutely no room to place or store it made no sense.
I spent days taking photos of everything—furniture, figurines, beaded purses, books, glassware, china, kitchenware, silver, artwork. A lifetime, much of it a part of my lifetime. I texted hundreds of images to about a dozen different thrift shops and consignment stores, buyers and sellers. (And with no WiFi in the condo. I’ve never appreciated my phone more.)
Because the condo was in a gated community, it’s not like I could put a couch on Craigslist or even have an estate sale onsite. I did have two consignment people come to the condo and take a (very) small haul away. And I found someone who would buy my mom’s silver service to resell, not melt, for slightly more than I’d been offered elsewhere.
But anything else that wouldn’t fit in the new place would have to go. It was heartbreaking to part with the two truckloads that were hauled away, but their time, meaning, and usefulness had come and gone and it was time for them to enrich someone else’s life.
When nobody wants your stuff
For the most part, even expensive things in perfect condition are currently flooding the market. The things that did sell sold for a very small fraction of what they were once worth. It broke my heart to see treasures skipped over and even the hard-core, all-business consignment people were apologetic: “I just can’t sell this.” And if this was hard, seeing my mom’s disappointment was even more wrenching for me.
Donation centers can be really picky about what they’ll accept and juggling appointments for each one to come and take a few pieces here and there was becoming increasingly difficult. What ended up helping the most was my mom’s suggestion to call the local Chabad’s Thrift Center, which benefits the Jewish school nearby. They arranged to come through and pick up everything, which simplified my life enormously. I only hope that the donations will benefit this school and community.
Of course, I took everything else over to my mom’s that I could squeeze in there, including boxes of things I hadn’t seen in decades—pictures I had drawn in preschool, photos from before I was born, even replies to my Bat Mitzvah invitation in 1964 (which I did toss, although they were fun to see again)!
There were boxes and boxes of photos and many more already in albums. (This has really made me question the importance and value of the photos from my own life.) I made one last consignment shop drop-off and wrapped a few special items to take home in my carry-on bag.
And then it was done. The condo was empty. I said my last goodbye and took with me the memories and comfort of knowing that my mom had enjoyed 14 years in this complex, and that all along, this was ultimately a good thing to have done for her.
A few things I learned:
People can be amazing. At every turn, I found people—often complete strangers—who helped me connect with something I needed or someone I needed to know. I even had a friend of a friend offer me a beautiful, peaceful place to stay a block from the condo while I was emptying it out, which I gratefully accepted. Most of the tasks were really one-person jobs, or things I needed alone time and quiet to focus and get done. But there was always help, numerous offers, or a friend to take me out for a break when I needed it most.
Moving someone involves more details than I ever would have imagined. Especially when working from 2000 miles away for much of this time. Dealing with the medical professionals, the paperwork to get her into assisted living (OMG!), the real estate community, getting some hideous and overpriced “emergency furniture” into the new place, or figuring out where the best donation centers were and which ones took what, turned into an 8-month journey of non-stop work, questions, and follow up. I hate how vulnerable I was to incompetent, dishonest, and exploitative people at the time. Everything has since been corrected, but there were too many things that were impossible to plan for, even if I had been there at the time.
Moving a loved one is emotionally exhausting. Whether digging up stuff from my childhood or finding my parents’ divorce papers, going through another person’s life can bring up a lot of stuff. I questioned my right to make certain decisions I had to make, and may always have lingering doubts about whether I made the right choices. Giving away things that my mom had loved and enjoyed was painful for both of us. The past was constantly in my face and whatever work I had done over the years (therapy- or recovery-wise) came in real handy during this time.
There is enormous value in making a record of what you’re dealing with ahead of time. About two years before any of this happened, I had a brainstorm to record my mom giving me a “tour” of everything in the condo. Neat as a pin, no clutter anywhere. But it was also packed to the gills. Mom often apologized in advance for how much she knew she’d be leaving for me to deal with, and yet was unable to part with any of it despite my encouragement.
Note: This was probably the smartest thing I did: Having my mom go through her belongings and share the stories behind them—where they came from, what they meant to her, which ones I should try to sell—while I recorded it on video with my iPad. Even smarter was doing this a couple years before I needed this information!
So before I started my later commutes between Albuquerque and south Florida, I watched the videos a couple of times and made elaborate notes of the things that had financial or sentimental value, where she had bought this or who had given her that, or even what certain things were or were for. This was immensely helpful in sorting what to move and keep from what to donate or try to sell.
My mom is stronger than most people I’ve ever known. I knew that I’d ultimately be responsible for clearing everything out of her condo. The one thing I did not anticipate was that my mom would be a part of the process. The up side was that somehow, at 94, mere months after a stroke and a heart attack (oh, and a year after knee-replacement surgery), she is still sharp as a tack and was mobile enough to help go through the old place and pick out what she wanted. This was a huge help and reduced the number of decisions I had to make.
Mom did not make this move by choice, and I hated having to be a part of the process that imposed it on her. As much as I tried to leave the door open for her to make other choices, I think she knew from the beginning that this was a good move, and has done an amazing job of acclimating to less space, less privacy, and living her life according to the facility’s schedule—not to mention recovering from a health crisis that would have taken most people out.
I know that there will be a part 2 to this story, and I’m just too much in denial to even think about that now. Mom’s on notice that she needs to keep enjoying her new, safer, and in many ways better life for a long, long time. Meanwhile, I am grateful beyond belief for having been able to help, and for the chance we had to bond over a very challenging transition.
© 2019, Dr. Jane Bluestein
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