A Half-Century Later

Craig Stephens

MY PARENTS RECENTLY moved out of the house they’d lived in for 50 years. A half-century might sound like quite an accomplishment. But they stayed too long.

Their home was a 1940s two-story gray stone house north of Pittsburgh, with a three-quarter acre yard. At the 40-year mark, when my parents were in their mid-to-late 60s, the house began evolving from a safe shelter to a hidden hazard zone. The comfort and familiarity of four decades overshadowed the emerging challenges that would affect them as aging seniors.

The house had no bedroom or bathroom on the main floor, only upstairs. The bathroom situation made it difficult for visitors who were uncomfortable with stairs. The laundry was in the basement, requiring two flights down and two up for every load. Remodeling options didn’t make practical or financial sense.

Meanwhile, the three-tiered yard included a steep driveway, creating a slippery slope during the Pittsburgh winters. Maintaining the sizable yard was my dad’s daily exercise and hobby. He mowed grass and nurtured a bountiful garden for 45 years. But a severe health issue sapped his physical stamina. Hiring a service was not in his frugal and do-it-yourself nature, so he painstakingly tamed the turf and shrubbery until the movers drove off. The yard and aged house were constant physical and mental weights.

Now, my parents are in a more suitable home, with all their living needs on the main floor and comfortable guest accommodations upstairs for when the grandchildren visit. It’s still close to the old neighborhood, but even closer to their retired friends and regular golf courses.

Financially, they did everything right, saving enough money to buy the new place with cash before selling the old home. This gave them the flexibility to move at their own pace, though it still wasn’t enough time to properly sort through 50 years of stuff. Despite financial preparation and ongoing counsel, the pending real estate transaction caused significant anxiety because they’d only purchased a property once before, in 1972.

I observed the last decade of my parents’ residency like a risk manager, actively noting all the reasons they should move sooner. For years, I feared they were one fall or health issue away from moving in distress. But my fact-sharing and encouragement only went so far. When they finally acknowledged moving was overdue, the thought of packing up and relocating was overwhelming.

Thankfully, everything worked out okay. When a home in their ideal community became available, they’d already made the necessary financial preparations so they could act quickly. Still, getting there was a long and stressful process. In hindsight, three things would have both accelerated and eased the transition to a more suitable home.

Declutter sooner. Fifty years of possessions and clutter deterred my parents from moving. They couldn’t fathom how to deal with it all. COVID-19 was the perfect opportunity to start downsizing possessions. But not even the boredom of a global pandemic could motivate them to clean out the house. Emotional attachment and irrational justification prevented them from tossing unneeded stuff. Selling things online was intimidating, and they felt there was still financial value in items that most people would view as junk.

They only started addressing the clutter when the new and old homes were under contract. The move forced them to take responsibility for their accumulated possessions, instead of delegating the burden to the next generation.

Much of it went to family and charity, but plenty survived the move, filling the spacious new closets with mystery boxes and converting their two-car garage into a one-car. Had they trimmed their possessions during the previous 20 retirement years, they’d have eliminated a significant mental roadblock that deterred them from moving.

Avoid the “forever home” mindset. Legend has it that the old home’s previous owner had died while working on the roof. As a kid, I remember my dad saying he also planned to die that way.

In his youthful parenting years, Dad never thought he’d live so long. A bland high-fiber diet and daily exercise apparently worked. Still, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he suffered a similar fate as the previous owner, as he continued cleaning the gutters well into his 70s.

Aging seniors often prefer to stay in their longtime homes, and they may be able to do so if it’s suitable. Family, friends and the community can help by providing support for aging in place. But the home’s layout, maintenance requirements and location should be the deciding factors, not stubborn desire. Emotion can sometimes overrule long-term pragmatism, and I suspect that bias grows stronger as we age. My dad’s “forever home” mindset delayed the inevitable and made the move more challenging.

Have a retirement housing plan. My parents retired in 2002, when they were in their mid-50s. With their finances secured by their pensions, they focused on golf, grandchildren and travel. Long-term housing needs didn’t enter their conversations until 15 years later, after a significant health challenge.

Staying in a home “for as long as possible” isn’t a good plan. Waiting until sudden limitations force a move is even worse, as hurrying can result in settling for a less-than-optimal next home. Thinking you won’t live long enough to incur physical or mental limitations in your current home ignores many likely life scenarios. By delaying decisions about retirement housing, individuals and couples risk burdening loved ones with the heavy responsibilities of arranging a move.

Ask yourself: Can you live in your current home if afflicted with mobility or mental limitations? What modifications to your current home would make it more suitable as you age? Where else could you live? Are you financially capable of moving quickly, or are preparations still needed?

If your current housing situation isn’t suitable for the long term, consider rectifying any shortcomings or moving sooner rather than later. My parents’ experience suggests that the longer you wait, the harder it gets.

Craig Stephens writes about personal finance and investing at Retire Before Dad and Access IPOs. Follow Craig on Facebook and on Twitter @RetireBeforeDad, and check out his earlier articles.

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