Design & Home

Here’s What It’s Really Like When an Aging Parent Moves In

“It sometimes feels like having a third person enter our marriage.”

As told to Susannah Herrada. About 15 months ago, Liz’s mother, who has dementia, moved into her family’s English basement in Arlington.

It’s been a tough adjustment. There are days when I can relate to my mom the way I could 20 years ago. Other days, she can be completely irrational. When my mom moved in, I imagined she would be out and about, to the movies and the community center. I hoped she’d work out at the gym and we’d play golf and tennis together. We did that some, but she’s shy by nature and becoming more reclusive because of the disease. Living together gives us nice little moments. She loves it when I come down and sit on her couch and talk about my day or listen to her stories about our two cats. We are in many ways each other’s sounding board for our past. That’s really comforting for both of us.

Living together has been hard on all of us in different ways. She likes to keep her windows open all the time, letting the AC go right out the door. She also gets hungry at 5 o’clock. I know because she comes up to the kitchen to ask what she can do to help with dinner—which means she expects me to put dinner on the table. If I don’t have a plan for it, she gets kind of pissy and then I end up feeling guilty. She’s helpful, though—she makes the salad every night and sets the table. She’s also great at folding laundry.

FAMOUS WASHINGTONIANS WHO HAVE LIVED WITH THE 'RENTS
Michelle and Barack Obama
Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, was considered the most popular person in the White House. “Grandma’s room was like the confessional,” Michelle told Gayle King.

Hillary and Bill Clinton
Hillary’s mom, Dorothy Rodham, moved into the family’s house near Embassy Row in 2006. About Bill, she said: “There is only one person who can really tell the truth about a man, and that’s his mother-in-law.”

Chip and Jeff Carter
Jimmy Carter’s adult sons both lived in the White House with their families: “We couldn’t afford to live anywhere else,” said Chip’s wife, Caron, before the couple split.

J. Edgar Hoover
He shared a house with his mother on Capitol Hill. In Clint Eastwood’s biopic about him, the FBI director—a rumored cross-dresser—wears her dress after she dies. —Elliot Williams

Sometimes we just want our own family unit. The conversation around the dinner table has changed. She’s often confused or doesn’t understand the references. We end up censoring ourselves because it’s sometimes just easier than answering all the questions that come up. It can feel like you’re back to the roommate days of your twenties: When we go to the store, she picks out the ice cream she wants and puts it in her own separate freezer downstairs. She’s possessive of her stash. She’s not indulgent to her granddaughters when it comes to her ice cream.

It sometimes feels like having a third person enter our marriage. She doesn’t know how to keep her comments to herself. She’ll come to me and say, “I don’t like how [your husband] talks to the kids!” or “I don’t like how this kid just spoke to me.” Sometimes I tell her, “If you have an issue, take it up with that person and leave me out of it.” I don’t like having to be the middleman. There are times I wish she would appreciate me. That probably sounds immature, but I guess I’m still looking for her approval. She puts in her two cents when we’re having family discussions or arguments. When she thinks one child is getting the short end of the stick, she’ll say it’s not fair or challenge us. She still sees herself as the parent, and she sees my parenting as flawed.

I think it comes down to recognizing what can be done and what can’t be done. For the most part, I have to just let the other stuff roll off my back. It’s been an exercise in learning patience and tolerance, for all of us.

When a Holiday Visit Turns Permanent

Three years ago, Amy’s father-in-law came to visit for Thanksgiving—and ended up moving into her family’s Rockville home. As told to Susannah Herrada.

We had a conversation very early on about the likelihood that one of our parents would live with us. The most likely bet was my husband’s dad. He’d come here as a refugee from Vietnam with his pregnant wife and three children and didn’t have a lot of money for retirement.

We were dating the first time he came to stay. He had just had his first stroke, and it was clear to both of us that it would be better if he stayed while he recovered. The next time was in 2012. We had twins in third grade, a preschooler, and an au pair. We were short on space, and there were too many adults in the house trying to parent. It was just not the right time. He decided he wanted to go back to Portland.

The last time, we weren’t expecting it. It was three years ago when he came out for Thanksgiving. On the way, he had a stroke on the plane. We came to the conclusion that the best thing for him was to stay with us. The timing was much better for everyone. Now our boys just see it as the thing we do. I love watching them interact with my father-in-law, though it has not been without some reservations. The strokes left him unable to fully communicate. We’re also seeing signs of dementia. We all work through the frustration of not being able to understand each other at times, but my kids find ways to communicate with their grandfather without words. They’re learning compassion and how to anticipate the needs of someone who is less mobile.

THE MONEY TALK

Get the conversation out of the way
Adult children and their parents tend to underestimate both the emotional and the financial burdens of moving in together. Starting the conversation early allows families to plan for multiple contingencies.

Think twice about a joint bank account
While adding the kid’s name to the parent’s accounts may sound like an easy solution, shared bank accounts put a parent’s money at risk if the child incurs debt.

Should the in-laws pay rent?
Though the answer is as individual as each family, remember that contributions to the household need to be reasonable for the market. Inflated payments made to the kids could raise red flags if the senior applies for government benefits.

Put everything in writing
Especially if other siblings are in the mix. Pay now for peace later If parents do commit to splitting household expenses, don’t delay the payments. Promised compensation after their death through their estate may never happen and could lead to conflict among beneficiaries.

As full-time lawyers, my husband and I needed to figure out how to have somebody in the house during the day, not necessarily to provide care but to keep an eye on things. I’ve arranged three days of telework each week, and my husband works from home the other two. We also try to make sure my father-in-law has things to do. The city of Rockville has a senior-center bus that comes to get him every day. He hangs out there, socializes, and works out in their gym. One of our bigger challenges is that it’s difficult for us to leave him for an extended period. When we want to get away, we rely on family to come from far away to help. It’s important for whoever is providing care to have the time and space to take a break.

This article appears in the November 2019 issue of Washingtonian.