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Building a life and finding community, later in life

Making the move

Three years ago, Wellmark member Evelyn Grandgenett was in the sitting area of the hospital, awaiting word about her husband, Paul. It was one of many doctor visits they’d made over the last few weeks, and her thoughts returned to the inevitable: moving. But saying it out loud, and telling her family, well, made it seem too real.

It was hardly a new thought, though. For years, Evelyn had been clearing out their home in Wesley, Iowa. Slowly but surely, she sorted through closets, scoured through old mementos, and sent her five grown children home with boxes of old clothing items and stuff from their childhoods. She sent old piano books home with grandkids who were taking lessons. She made multiple trips to consignment shops to unload old artwork and household items.

At Christmas, she gave gag gifts, like the old 1960s Panasonic radio that sat on the kitchen table, or the foot massager, in its original packaging from the 1970s. They were sure to get a few laughs, and be re-gifted among family members for years to come.

But the reality of packing up everything and leaving their home of 43 years — the home they built, the place they raised their family, and the gathering spot for major holidays — was too much. What about the grandfather clock they’d bought for their 25th anniversary? The china hutch? The family portraits? The Christmas village? These items wouldn’t fit in a smaller space.

Then there was the yard, the garden, the apple trees and the rhubarb patch. The neighbors. The church. The whole community, and the routines they’d built their life around.

As she sat in that hospital waiting room, this is where her thoughts stopped. It was too much to think about leaving it all behind.

Stay put or move out?

According to an August 2018 AARP® survey of  adults 50 and older, 3 out of 4  want to stay in their homes and communities External Site as they age. Yet, many don’t see this as an option because of health concerns.

Moving out comes with many valid, powerful worries. There’s the fear of losing independence. The physical stress of moving. The emotional process of sorting through decades of keepsakes and possessions. The leaving behind of a community and treasured friendships. Overall, the fear of the unknown may not seem worth the inconvenience of moving.

The good news is that over time, moving can actually improve the quality of life — even for people who are reluctant to move in the first place.

Beginning of the end, or a new beginning?

In Evelyn's case, Paul had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2008, when he was 72. For a while, the gradual progression of the disease did little to slow the couple down. There were setbacks, particularly when Evelyn underwent treatment for lymphoma. Otherwise, they powered through their empty-nester life with relative ease. They enjoyed visiting family, attending grandchildren’s choir concerts and sporting events. They spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, mixing and baking enormous batches of their delicious monster cookies, which accompanied them on every visit.

But in 2016, Paul was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, of which there is no cure. This alone was hard to accept. He was short of breath and required oxygen. He had back pain and needed a cane.

“It was up to me to lead the charge, because Paul’s health was deteriorating,” says Evelyn. “We lived in a small, rural town, and we were traveling long distances for hospital appointments. The home had become more burdensome. It was time.”

She was particularly concerned about Paul, who would have to say goodbye to the things he knew and loved: tending the garden, mowing the lawn, cleaning the church and socializing with old friends. Yet, he was becoming too frail to participate in these activities. She was concerned the move would be too hard on him. Paul seemed to know, too, that this was the best choice.

They zeroed in on Mason City, Iowa, because it was close to extended family, and their oldest daughter lived there with her family. Their doctors and the hospital were close by. They learned about some newly built independent living condominiums, called Prairie Place. They set up a visit. Soon, they decided it was the right choice.

“All the things I feared — being unable to sell the home, packing up the belongings, unloading once-treasured items — it all seemed to fall in place,” says Evelyn. “Remarkably, the house was sold to a young family who needed the space. Upon making the decision in October 2016, they had moved by January 2017.

What Evelyn wouldn’t know until later is that she was building a whole new life for herself.

Not even two years after they moved from their home to an independent living facility, Paul passed away in the fall of 2018. Watching his health decline was the most difficult two years of Evelyn’s life. But in the process, she stumbled upon something quite meaningful: A supportive community of people.

Check out our "Leaving behind the family home" series

For more information on the people of Prairie Place, and the transition of moving into an assisted living facility, read the rest of our "Leaving behind the family home" series: