STAY PUT OR MOVE ON?

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The conventional wisdom extended to the new widow or widower is to not do anything for a while, or (putting it another way) to do only what you feel like doing.  That’s tricky advice, because of the “feeling” component.  Do you go on living where and how you’ve always lived with the person who’s died — reminded every hour, in that familiar setting you shared, that the person who should also have been there is absent forever?  You may “feel” you want to stay, close to as much of his or her presence as lingers, everywhere you look, in the clothing, the furniture, the favorite foods in the pantry.  However, staying put may also prolong the excruciating feeling your life has been torn in two and the other half remains missing.  Your own (now disabled) life may stay put as well.

Or do you take a deep breath and turn your back on your joint past (without ever forgetting it)?  Do you then begin looking for another, smaller, different place in which to live because you “feel” that’s the only way begin building a life of your own even though you really don’t feel like doing it just yet? Should moving on begin with an actual move?

I present this query as if it were a matter of free choice. Indeed, for all the widows I met in the two six-week bereavement groups it was a free choice.  All had been married to the same man since emerging from college. (“From my father to my husband,” as one put it.)  All had comfortable homes in which they had raised their children and which grandchildren visited frequently, homes now free and clear of mortgages. They drove relatively new and powerful cars. Some had second houses in Florida, to escape the winter months.In no case did money problems figure among their laments.  In other words,  in their bereavement they were well fixed to stay put. And I believe that in the four months or so since the second group disbanded, none of these widows has moved. One who I ran into in the local market hasn’t yet begun to empty her husband’s closet, although he died about a year ago; she says she’s begun to think about it only now because of her daughter’s urging.

Two of us have not stayed put.  F., a recent widower, nursed his artist wife for four years until in the end he lost her to cancer. They had been living in a large house in a township about thirty minutes from Princeton, chosen to accommodate his wife’s studio and artwork. Now she was gone and he was alone with all the memories which seeing her paintings, sculpture and drawings around him every day could only exacerbate. Moreover, he had both professional and social connections in Princeton, from which he was somewhat isolated where he lived. Yet these were the people who might best be able to help him begin again.  So F. put his house on the market within a few months of the funeral and before the bereavement group’s first session.  He also made a deposit on a new one-bedroom rental apartment in the heart of Princeton.  This didn’t mean he had worked through his grief.  He felt, however, that he had a better chance of recovery (if we can call it that) in a new environment with fewer triggers to remind him of what he had lost.

My situation too was somewhat different from that of the other members of the two groups. I also had a choice. But not a good or completely free one.  Bill and I had been together only fifteen years, and although we split all expenses down the middle, I was the one who bought the condo we’d lived in for the ten years since we came to Princeton.  While we kept separate checking accounts, we also shared a joint one, into which last January he had transferred sufficient funds to pay part of his share for the calendar year. But his social security disappeared with his death in May.  Although until 2017 I could carry the condo expenses alone (including mortgage and real estate taxes)  without touching capital, after that I would need to begin withdrawing what I had counted on not needing to withdraw so quickly, since there wouldn’t be any more when it was gone.   That seemed unwise.  Irrespective of my “feelings” about the condo, which reminded me wherever I looked of the other person who used to live there and had vanished, I knew I should sell before 2017.

I knew this as soon as Bill died in May.  It took me about three weeks to emerge from shock, weakness, and very frequent tears. Then V., a real estate agent, called. She wasn’t reading my mind.  I was the one who had first called her mid-April to set up a meeting I had to cancel when he developed terminal pneumonia. She was now following up.

The back story is that for a long time after the symptoms of his disease manifested itself, Bill had insisted he wanted to die at home.  About a year ago, he reluctantly changed his mind.  The stairs were becoming too difficult, given the state of his lungs.  We needed to live on one floor, preferably where many of the chores of home maintenance would be taken care of, and perhaps where there was also access to nursing care if needed. However there could be no buying without selling.  The money for the next place was tied up in my equity in the condo.

At the time, I was ambivalent.  Although approaching my 85th birthday, I didn’t feel ready to consign myself to “a retirement community.”  I thought of those communities as holding pens for death. On the other hand, Bill needed to be in such a place. So I swallowed my reservations. We visited a beautiful and (for us) hugely expensive facility run by the Quakers in Pennsylvania, another in Montgomery  (just north of Princeton) which gave me possibly irrational but nevertheless bad vibes, and a third in Plainsboro (but with a Princeton address), where the lovely apartments were market-rate — and without future medical care built into the monthly fees, thereby greatly raising them. I also began calling real estate agents to get started with the sale part of this double enterprise.  We met with three and were about to meet with V., who would have been the fourth, before Bill became too sick to proceed.

So when V. called at the beginning of June, I could have consulted my feelings and said, “Not yet.”  Or I could have made the choice I thought I should, and said, “Yes come. Let’s talk.”  Not in any way enthusiastic about moving to that “retirement community” (just about the only source of one-floor apartments in or near Princeton not priced out of my league), but driven by financial prudence (as well as fear), I agreed to meet with V. in a week.  That gave me just one  week to rid the condo of all Bill’s medications, cannulas, inhalers, oxygen concentrators and related equipment; to get off the floors, and find a place in the already full bookcases for, the towers of books surrounding every place he liked to sit; and also to make his office (the second bedroom) and his bathroom (the second bathroom) somewhat more presentable.

There’s nothing like a timetable to get you off your ass and thinking again about something other than yourself. Plenty of time to cry early in the morning and in bed at night.  As for the question posed in the headline, in a way (and much like attendance at bereavement groups) it’s different strokes for different folks. What answer might I have given if I were rolling in money?  I truly don’t know.  But I’m not.  That said, I think I made the right decision — for me.  I’m better off, in almost all ways, here than there.

The prospect of V.’s visit precipitated a whirlwind of activity that didn’t let up until after I moved into the Plainsboro residence near the end of September.  By that time I had resumed sporadic, although not yet regular blogging. I had also reaped all kinds of kudos from acquaintances for having rebounded so efficiently and accomplished so much in such a short time. I hadn’t “rebounded.”  I still miss Bill acutely, beyond writing about it,  even in this new environment. But I did accomplish quite a bit in not very much time at all.  However, there’s no mystery or miracle about it.  You do what you have to do.  And with some luck, and some help from friends and interested professionals, it gets done.

One or two (or three) more posts about the “moving on” part. And then we’re up to date!

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28 thoughts on “STAY PUT OR MOVE ON?

  1. It’s a tough decision. I already know that I would need to move swiftly if my husband died. The house is already too big and too expensive with too much work. I couldn’t afford it on my own. We would have already moved if he wasn’t so resistant. My mother did not move when my father died. She had to return to work (she was 45 at the time) and paid off the mortgage. She stayed because I was young (11) and she was living within walking distance of many relatives who were a great support group. That’s a whole different ball park. It took several years for her to recover. Moving isn’t easy. I admire that you were sane and logical during your grief. Not everyone is so good at that. Moving on is not recovering. It’s doing what you need to do.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, Kate, your mother’s situation was very different, not only because you were young but, relatively speaking, she was too. And no, moving is certainly not recovering, but for some people, including me, it’s a start in climbing out of the dark hole.

      Liked by 2 people

      • “Chutzpah” is spelled just right. I don’t think that’s exactly the word you want, though. Having “chutzpah” means you’ve got a lot of nerve — for barging in where you weren’t invited, for instance. (A pushy person has chutzpah.) Maybe you mean guts? Survival instinct?

        However, “inspiration” I won’t fuss with; it’s such a lovely thing to say. Thank you so much.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with what Kate said. If anything happens to my husband, that’s what I’ll do. In fact we’re trying to get the house in order to sell and get something smaller before it happens!

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    • Beware, Elyse. Moving to a smaller house now may not be the last move you will need to make, whether you’re left alone or are still a couple. And moving is so difficult you might want to avoid a second such upheaval by rethinking what you plan to move to next. Although perhaps you’ve already done that and I’m preaching to the choir.

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  3. Good post and I am happy your life is moving along.

    With both of us still alive we have training sessions in case one of us goes before the other. A not unreasonable assumption.

    Helvi is writing down pin numbers and making herself familiar with banking etc. I am also trying to nudge her into using those horrible shop automatic scanners. She has let go of her driving license.

    Bed making and tidying up will be my Waterloo. But, the overcoming of missing partner will be my hardest.

    We don’t have a mortgage but the Australian pension is miserly. Can you believe deduction are made because we are also getting small pensions from both Holland and Finland.

    The best part is our town-house with level entrance and within easy walking distance from two hospitals. A public and a private hospital. How good is that?

    I can’t bear to think I will be left alone first. A selfish man.

    All the best, Dear Nina.

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    • Well, Gerard, we all do what we believe we need to do to “prepare.” Our situation was somewhat different than yours, but missing your partner I’m sure feels worst to everyone. And hey, we’re all selfish deep down inside, however kind we may appear to others.

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  4. “Stay put or move on.” I think this decision preoccupies many older people, and for good reason. I’ve seen the impossible predicament that some people create when they refuse to move to more appropriate living quarters. My Great Aunt Leola chose to stay in the two-story house that she loved after her husband died. This was OK when she was young-old (60s) and middle-old (70s). By the time she entered the old-old category (80s and beyond), it became increasingly clear that the two-story house with large yard was no longer an appropriate place for her to live by herself. She was blessed with good health until an advanced age, and she steadfastly refused to budge from her house. At length her window of opportunity to relocate closed. She was no longer capable of making the decision or the move.

    That’s why I believe it is imperative for older people to relocate to a place where they will be able to remain, health permitting, into advanced old age. AND, people need to make the decision and the move while they are still able to do so without extreme stress. The decision often demands difficult tradeoffs beyond the scope of this comment.

    In my opinion, the American Dream of homeownership is part of the problem. If a couple or individual lived in a RENTED property, rather than an OWNED home (often still under mortgage), the move would be greatly simplified. There are many advantages to homeownership, both financial and emotional, and I am not suggesting that American families deny themselves the benefits of ownership.

    But when retirement comes along and people eventually decide it’s time to move, people do not automatically have to continue the habit of homeownership. RENTING can greatly simplify life in retirement.

    First, one’s limited capital can be redirected to savings or investment, rather than sinking it into a downpayment. Second, when you rent, the landlord usually takes care of all the maintenance. Third, you retain more flexibility. If your housing needs or preferences change ten years from now, it will be much easier and quicker to move on from a rental property than from an owned property.

    As a single person, I’ve lived in rented apartments most of my adult life, and I suggest that retired folks consider the advantages of renting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Renting is always an option. The father of my children was looking for a rental when he thought of moving to Florida to be near our younger son and his family. F., the widower in this piece, did rent. He chose a very small but brand-new apartment where he thought he would like to live — on a one-year lease. However, he’s ten years younger than I am and, judging by the published rental prices of the apartments in his new development, which I consider prohibitively high, has more monthly income at his disposal. (There are no cheap rentals in Princeton. Of course, one could look elsewhere, but the older you are, the harder it is to tear yourself out of a town you know for one you don’t.) But thank you so much for your extended but very thoughtful comment.

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      • Yes, cost of living is the greatest problem for aging people, along with loneliness and health issues, of course. Cost of renting is prohibitive all along the East Coast, from Boston to Virginia. Where rentals are high, buying is usually also expensive. Many condos that seniors are attracted to also come with high and constantly rising monthly condo fees.

        My home area, Montgomery County, MD, outside Washington, is way prohibitive. It was a big mistake for me to return here when I retired. I’m constantly researching cost of living in various places, and expect to relocate within two years. Parts of Florida, and many places in the South, have moderate costs of renting or buying. (A person could buy or rent very cheaply in many parts of the Great Plaines states. If you can tolerate living in what might feel like a ghost town, compared to the East coast.)

        As you noted, leaving behind a place you know can be the hardest part. People in their 60s and early 70s can often make new friends in a new area, but it becomes ever harder with passing years. The ideal solution is a place where you already have family and friends nearby. If a person has children and grandchildren in a place where the cost of living is reasonable, problem solved.

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  5. Rita Stewart

    Very interesting and thoughtful article. It really shows how each situation is totally different and yet similar ….it so depends on finances, age, place and emotional state. When R died after a long,protracted illness. I was 54 years old with two young adult children…we helped each other grieve. I chose to remain in the house I still love. I didn’t mind having reminders of him there…I wept, but loved it. My children loved the house too…when they come home they often talked about great memories of their Dad. It’s something all of us muddle through in some crazy fashion !

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A wonderful post and an eye opener to the possibilities time will bring. For me, it’s a little different as I still take care of myself. But one day I will have to make a choice on where and who to live with. Lucky for me, my daughter has laid claim to me living with her.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for your wise input, Christine. Unfortunately, many people begin to think about long-term care insurance at a late time in their lives when the premiums have become prohibitively astronomic. You’re lucky you had the foresight to put it in place when you were younger.

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  8. This is a great blog. I enjoy reading this discussion thread. Bottom line is this out of 5 the five focus groups I administered while working for Mizzou Sinclair School of Nursing of elder adults, the older adults I spoke to said they would much rather be independent than safe. I love that my almost blind, 82 year old mom, is still living in her home even though she may burn herself on the oven, as she recently did, or ends up eventually getting hurt falling outside on the cobblestones or on her steep steps.

    She has enthusiasm, and a zest for life, even though she cannot see and her teeth are falling out!! I say enjoy life to the fullist as my mom is. I’m so proud of her independence. Good luck to you all! 🙂 Thanks, Jen

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