A line drawing showing an older couple

Hello, Mom and Dad: Is it Time to Sell the House?

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Gerontologist Karl Pillemer offers advice on how to talk to your aging parents about key life changes—and plan for your own

By Beth Saulnier

Human Ecology’s Karl Pillemer has devoted his career to studying older adults—particularly ways to make one’s later years happier, healthier, and more satisfying. His work includes directing the Cornell Legacy Project, whose research formed the basis of his book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans

Prof. Karl Pillmer

The Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Psychology, Pillemer holds an appointment in gerontology at Weill Cornell Medicine and serves as Human Ecology’s senior associate dean for research and outreach.

His most recent book, on family estrangement—Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them—was released in 2020 and comes out in paperback this fall. He’s also the author of 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage.

Cornellians asked Pillemer to weigh in on an issue that many Gen Xers are facing now: how to help their parents cope with the challenges of aging—from where to live to whether it’s time to stop driving.

When it comes to getting older, a key issue is often deciding when—or whether—to move out of the family home. What’s your take on that?

Most Americans say they want to age in place in their own homes—and many of them are wrong. It can be much better for people to age in community, rather than being on their own and isolated.

On the positive side, older people are increasingly planning for themselves. There are now many options, such as senior living and assisted living communities. They can solve a host of problems—and even people who’ve been reluctant to move usually wind up feeling positive about it. That’s why there has been an enormous boom in “over-55” communities.

So is the stereotype of adult children trying to cajole their parents into moving not necessarily accurate these days?

Fascinatingly, we have sometimes found the reverse: parents plan to move, and their children vehemently oppose it: “How can you sell our house? You’re not that old!” I’ve heard of many older people having their children resist these kinds of anticipatory moves, because it reminds them of their own aging.

The holidays are coming up, and many people will be traveling to visit parents. Is it a good time to discuss this kind of thing?

These conversations do tend to happen around the holidays, but that can cause a lot of conflict. My advice is: don’t come home for Thanksgiving and say, “Why don’t you move out of this big old house?” It’s not the time to sweep in like a visiting deity. Your parents will very logically say, “You’re not here; you don’t observe my day-to-day life.”

If adult children are having a hard time convincing parents to make needed changes in their living arrangements, what can they do?

One thing that can be very useful is the introduction of an objective third party—especially somebody trained to understand the social and health needs of older people. There’s a wonderful profession now called “geriatric care managers.” They can take the emotional edge off, and make this a rational decision. They may find that home modifications can keep the person at home longer, or that the person can move out of the family house into a one-level home and receive supportive services.

What’s the ideal time to talk about these issues?

I would really encourage people to have these conversations early, before the need arises and it’s a crisis. It doesn’t have to be, “Mom and Dad, what do you want when you become old and sick?” It can be, “I see what’s happening to Uncle Ed; what would you want under those circumstances?”

For some older people, the trigger can be when they realize that unless they get help at home, they will be forced to move. And parents may have unrealistic expectations; they may expect a child whom they have helped a lot, or who lives nearby, to care for them. So I would really argue for open discussion, years before care is needed.

I would really encourage people to have these conversations early, before the need arises and it’s a crisis.

What about when someone needs help, but they don’t want a stranger coming into their home?

We need to keep in mind that older people aren’t just a bloc. For those in their 80s and beyond, there’s definitely a culture of “I don’t want an outsider in the house” or “If it’s going to be anybody, I want it to be a relative.” But many Baby Boomers are used to hiring all kinds of help throughout their lives, so they are typically less resistant.

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It’s good if they can have discretion over who is hired and what that person is going to do. Some people have found that giving, say, housecleaning as a gift can work—a foot-in-the-door technique. Or, “Can we at least get someone to help with the yard?” And if that works out, the person becomes more receptive.

If you’re not making headway on getting a parent to make changes, is there a point when you just have to drop it?

Older people are independent adults, and engaging in endless fighting about this doesn’t make sense. Let’s imagine you have a parent or parents living in a place that’s objectively unsuitable; they have mobility problems, there are steep stairs, and it’s hazardous. You can provide them all the options and make sure they understand the risks, but sometimes you have to stop fighting the battle.

When they are simply unwilling to change, I encourage people to just enjoy the relationship. You’ve got to honor individual choices, though it is extraordinarily difficult.

The cover of "30 Lessons for Living"
Pillemer’s book, which includes numerous insights on how to age successfully, features a preface by now-retired New York Times health columnist Jane Brody ’62.

On a broader level, how are demographic shifts impacting these issues?

In earlier generations, people typically had three, four, or more children and entered old age in an intact marriage, unless they were widowed. The leading edge of the Boomers are now 75. They’re entering old age much more likely to have one or zero children, and to be single. That places far more demands on the kids to have these challenging conversations.

Another key part of the dynamic is this: never have human beings shared so much time together as adults. At the turn of the 19th century, a 60-year-old woman had about a 4% chance of having a living parent. Now, well over half do—and those parents are likely in their 80s or 90s.

If adult children are far away from their parents, how can technology help?

It’s a huge boon. You can order things online and pay bills. I’ve known individuals who put cameras in the house, with their parents’ consent; it can really ease people’s minds. I would encourage anybody who’s prone to falling to have an emergency device to call for help. We are moving toward the “smart medical home,” with sensors to track vital signs and other things. And for older people, the self-driving car would be transformational.

That raises another issue: driving. What if you’re concerned about an older relative’s ability behind the wheel?

It’s really hard when people don’t want to give up the keys; nobody has a good solution. In some states, there are neuro-psychological exams or more discriminating vision tests that are used to evaluate the ability to drive.

Otherwise, persuasion is about all anybody can do; it may help to bring in a trusted third party, like a clergyperson. And you have to ask the question: if the person stops driving, how can they still be mobile? Can you contribute to taxis or Ubers? Is there someone in the neighborhood who could be paid to drive? Sometimes families simply say “stop driving” and don’t consider the impact.

At the turn of the 19th century, a 60-year-old woman had about a 4% chance of having a living parent. Now, well over half do.

What advice do you have for young and middle-aged adults who are looking ahead to their own later years?

Plan, plan plan—not just financially, but for the different stages of later life.

In gerontology, we talk about the “go-go” years, roughly 65 to 75; the “slow-go” years, from 75 to 85; and the “no-go” years, 85 and older. That’s an exaggeration, and people vary—but you need to think about your whole post-65 lifespan. What are you going to do when you’re more active, and when you need help?

Staying socially connected is also important. Isolation can be deadly; a lack of meaningful ties is a real health hazard. It’s not that everybody needs to be a back-slapping extrovert—but in our research, older people have repeatedly told us, “You have to find ways to be connected.” Over and over, we see people get engaged in the community after retirement and find a new lease on life.

Top: Illustration by Cornell University. All other images provided.

Published October 19, 2022


Comments

  1. Robert D Brooks

    I’m 88, a widowed male. I reside in a gated mountain community, sparsely populated, 10 miles from the nearest town, down curving roads. I have minimal social engagements, two mornings each week with four friends who live in town, and a cleaning woman one afternoon each week. My 5 children all reside hundreds of miles distant and even in Europe; two telephone me regularly; one irregularly; two not at all. Physically, I think my health is just ok; I have real dental issues that will require elaborate mediation, and partly as a consequence of that, I have related eating and weight problems. I am quite capable to drive mountain roads. Psychologically, two features are evident: I am much sharper mentally than my cohorts in terms of memory and the ability to construct sound arguments; on the down side, I miss intimacy very much. I still love my late wife; I am not suited for remarriage (too old and too picky). Where does all this fit in your advice handbook?

  2. Dennis P

    The unaddressed question is how do you get the kids and their kids out on their own so you can actually downsize? Discussion and pursuasion have proved of little value. Borders on being held hostage.

  3. Carole Kenyon, Class of 1959

    Well, all good advice; however, a popular option – you know those all level of care facilities + educational + social + gym facilities etc. – need to be scrutinezed by a forensic accountant! You sell and then sink a big chunk of the proceeds, then the entity runs out of money? It’s happened. // In addition, location? Ideally, it should be in some proximity to a child or children. What if that doesn’t seem to pinpoint a good location for the long-term?

    • Robert S Evans, Class of 1958

      Unlike my love for nearly 63 years.I will be open in my reply. Great to read about your winery trip and that is really what being connected is all about. We did have the pleasure of hearing Karl P in Naples right bas the pandemic hit up north and then went to Florida. At that time he talked about fractured families. Throughout my career I dealt with those issues and they were a bear but I did develope a a plan to help people get through them even if they wanted the blood fight to continue.

      There really is no one right answer but I do believe in the maxim that you have to do it before it does you. We are lucky to be a “go now ” couple with some moderation and consider ourselves most fortunate. We are also fortunate to have each other and to have “shared values” as a fulcrum in our lives. As you know from my better half we are active in going to restaurants and eating well, taking Oshet courses on the Middle Ages, the Reformation and just completing one on what is American Art.

      Hopefully we will be able to share in person with you and Ralph. In the meantime stay well and enjoy

  4. Bart Mills, Class of 1964

    Senior softball games three days a week with other 55-plussers, a daily two-mile run, always quick-stepping up the stairs at home, reading the New York Times plus local papers daily, having a serious book on the boil all the time, three squares a day, the love and companionship of a long-term spouse, children and grandchildren living locally—these are my recommendations for reaching (and possibly exceeding) 79 in one piece…..Bart Mills ‘64

    • David Moriah, Class of 1972

      Bart Mills, bravo for you! You are a mensch!

  5. Barbara Osgood, PhD '80, Class of 1956

    I am 88, in good health, and have been living single since my divorce at the age of 45. Thank you for (at least most of the time) referring to elders as intelligent, independent adults! I am a retired executive, a Cornell PhD sociologist/gerontologist and a writer, and I write a lot about what it is like to be old. I’d be happy to share with you.
    One big fear is the loss of independence, the primary reason I will stay in my home and not move into a retirement community. I have been rescuing old Labrador retrievers for 25 years. As someone who was diagnosed as bipolar in middle age, the dogs have saved my life. Being in my own home is the only way I will have a dog with me until the day I die.
    So, as you say, we are a diverse group. For me, it is always about the dogs!

    • Charles Kentnor, Class of 1964

      Hi Barbara,
      You remind me very much of my sister who is also your age and very independent. She recently moved to a senior community, which happens to allow dogs, so I know that is a possibility. Her move was precipitated by an event which made her realize it was better to make the move sooner than later. She has total independence including her car and her external social life has continued unabated, thanks to being only 1 mile from where she has lived for the past decades.
      If I can be of any help, please be in touch and I could put you in touch with her.

      Charlie Kentnor, ’64 BME ’65

  6. Judy Katz, Class of 1959

    to Carol Kenyon — important point! Thanks for adding that to the handbook.

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