How to Let Your Parents Make Their Own Retirement Decisions

At 90 years old, Fred Bolhouse decided he was ready to begin considering a move to a retirement community. His wife had died 10 years earlier, and when failing eyesight finally forced him to give up driving, Fred grew tired of being home alone. He visited one or two retirement communities, and Holland Home in South Holland, Illinois, emerged as his favorite.

So Fred moved in.

That was six years ago, and today, at 96, Fred is “as active as I want to be,” he says. He serves on the Hospitality Ministry, which welcomes new residents and helps them acclimate to the community. He is also a member of the Food Committee, which serves as a bridge between residents and Dining Services, working to keep everyone happy and healthy. And most mornings he can be found holding court in the Holland Home Café, where, he says, “A bunch of us men sit together and talk about the women, and the women all sit together and talk about us men!”

Fred and his son Ray have worked together through these life transitions, and both are pleased with the decisions that have been made. “Dad has really blossomed here,” says Ray. “He loves being in community, and it’s been really good for him. I gave him just one bit of advice when he moved in, and he has followed it. I told him, ‘Don’t complain. Be positive, and it will come back to you in spades.’ And that’s what has happened.”

What have the Bolhouse men learned in the past 6–10 years? They have this advice to share with others who are facing life transitions in their senior years:

1. Children, let your parents make their own decisions.

“It was his decision,” says Ray. “You can’t push someone to make a decision like this.” If it had been up to Ray, he would have moved his father to Holland Home sooner. But Fred says, “I think I did it at just the right time,” and Ray respects that. There may be health situations that require children to step in and help with decision-making, but doing so should be a last resort, and it should be done gently and respectfully.

2. Parents, don’t over-value your independence.

A lot of people delay moving to a retirement community because they are proud of how independent they are. And family and friends often unwittingly feed that sense of pride with comments such as, “Can you believe it — he’s 92 and still lives on his own. Isn’t he amazing?” But Fred chose to think of his decision as an exchange rather than a loss. That is, he didn’t “give up” his independence; instead, he exchanged some of it for community — and found that he came out ahead. “I don’t miss it at all,” he says of living alone. “I love living here. There’s always something going on, and I can choose which activities I want to go to. If I don’t want to go, I just stay in my apartment and watch TV.”

3. Families, don’t be afraid to communicate.

While Ray respected his father’s right to make his own decisions, he also communicated his own perspective: “I let him know, ‘Dad, you can’t keep living on frozen dinners, and you can’t keep expecting the neighbors to look out for you, and I hate stopping at the Jewel. I’ll do it, but I don’t like it.'” In other words, Ray never said, “Dad, you have to move to a retirement home,” but he did let his dad know that his decision to stay at home was affecting other people. Fred took that into consideration when he finally decided to move. And Ray expressed his appreciation to his dad. “For me, it was total peace of mind from the day he moved in,” says Ray. “I knew he was getting three squares a day, and I could see how much he enjoyed being with people again.”

4. Staff, treat family members as partners in caregiving.

“The people here are really great,” Fred and Ray agree. “The aides are all nice, and the maintenance service is prompt, and in the dining room the servers like to joke around with us.” Watching Fred and Ray interact with Holland Home staff, it’s clear that the sense of community extends beyond residents to include staff. The respect is mutual. Holland Home workers understand that this is Fred’s home, so they respect his privacy and his preferences. Fred understands that he is not their only customer, so he respects their workload — and the needs of other members of the community. Ray appreciates the expertise and hard work of the staff, and he expresses that to them each time he stops in to visit his dad. The staff appreciate that he keeps in touch, rather than coming to them only when there is a need or a complaint.

“We all want the same thing,” says Ray,”— a good life for Dad.
So it just makes sense to work together on that.”

Making transitions like this is not necessarily easy, but learning from the experience of others is a big help. Fred and Ray Bolhouse are a good example of how families can navigate change together.

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