Fear of Not Making New Memories Keeps Seniors in Place

Not knowing all their options or how to vet them is another big issue, says the host of PBS’s “Legacy List.”

By Matt Paxton
Matt Paxton
Matt Paxton

Lauren was one of my first clients at Clutter Cleaner. She lived in Washington, D.C., about an hour and half’s drive from Richmond without traffic — which means it’s really a four-hour drive because there’s always traffic. Her real estate agent had told her about a youngish guy named Matt Paxton back in Richmond who could help her out. I drove up to meet her, excited that my reputation had so quickly spread out of state.

A retired schoolteacher, Lauren was a little under five feet tall, stout, in her midseventies. She was a widower, now living alone. Her husband, Stephen, I soon learned, had worked in intelligence — the CIA or FBI, I assumed, though she never said — and had passed away six years earlier. Her kids were grown and lived halfway across the country. She told me that she needed some help moving.

Her old brick home was lovely, with curved arched door-ways and ten-foot-high ceilings. She was clearly devoted to her crafts: As I walked in, she pointed out colorful blankets she had cross-stitched, strewn in piles around the house. I was particularly impressed by a huge and elaborate dining set.

“So, where are you moving to?” I asked her, sitting on her screened-in back porch.

“I don’t know yet,” she responded, “but I’m ready to start decluttering.”

I was confused — both she and her real estate agent had mentioned moving. But in fact, Lauren hadn’t decided upon anything beyond talking to some moving experts, and even that was only at the behest of her kids. Lauren understood vaguely that she needed to move out of a big home she no longer needed.

One of the first things she told me was that no matter what, two things were going with her wherever she went: her twenty-two- piece-set dining room table and dishes — above all, she loved to entertain, she said — and her cross-stitched blankets.

But she had never given much thought to what she might want her life to look like after moving out. She was focused on the needs of her daily life, not her vision for the future. She didn’t assume she’d live in her current house forever. Rather, after Stephen died from a sudden heart attack, she’d figured she had a few more years before she needed to think about her next life stage.

When a few years came and went, she added a few more years to her timeline. Only the intervention of her children convinced her to meet with Clutter Cleaner.

I’ve since heard the same story from thousands of clients. Deciding if and where to move can be enormously difficult — even paralyzing. (Witness my initial decision to stay put instead of picking up my family to move to Georgia!) That’s why sometimes it’s helpful to have someone like me on hand to help out.

Working with Lauren helped me realize that part of my job is helping people envision their future and navigate the steps to get there. I completely understood her strategy of delaying those life-changing decisions. Decluttering before making the harder choices that can bring upheaval and uncertainty is an easy shortcut. But ultimately, it’s misguided.

What are your options?

The first and most important question in downsizing is: Where are you going? What is your destination? Or, as we say in my business: What’s the finish line?

You may end up staying where you are and “aging in place,” in industry parlance, or you may downsize to a smaller home. Probably half my clients stay put. The rest move, and some know before they call me where they’re going. The point is, knowing where you are (or aren’t) going gives you a better road map to decluttering. You’ll be able to accomplish a lot more. The smartest choices are those we make with careful planning and forethought. And if my clients aren’t there yet, I’ll help them get there.

Based on my personal and professional experiences, I’ve found that what keeps us from looking ahead is memories. Surprisingly, it’s often not the fear of losing old memories that keeps us in place. Rather, we’re afraid to let go and move on because we fear not making memories in a different environment.

We know the past and the present. We know what memories will be made here with the people we know in our current location. We know what memories we have already made here. But we don’t know what memories we’ll make and who — if anyone — we will make them with in our future locations. That’s scary. You can’t see forward when you are making this decision; you only see backward.

Sitting on Lauren’s back porch, looking at her lovely flower garden, we talked about her fears of moving out of her home. That’s what they were — fears. Of giving up her life. Of giving up her past. Of giving up her independence.

As she opened up to me, we explored the many choices available to her. Lauren had not considered any options beyond nursing homes. Like a lot of people, in fact, she didn’t know about many other options. Here are the choices I explored with her, as I’ve explored with so many other clients who call me before making a decision about where they’re going next.

Staying Put

If your current home suits you, you can stay there. As you age, you can make modifications to the home, such as adding grab bars to showers and moving your bedroom to the main level. Staying in your home probably feels like the most comfortable and secure option. You’re in your familiar neighborhood with your familiar belongings around you. You probably have a daily routine that feels comfortable. So long as you are healthy, you maintain your independence. If you need support in the future — from home and lawn maintenance to health care — you can hire help, if you can afford it. And if you own your home and your mortgage is paid, this can be the most affordable option.

This option is not for everyone. If you’re living alone, aging in place can be lonely. If you need services in the future, such as home health care aides, you’ll need to factor that into your budget. And structural changes to the home, such as adding ramps, widening doorways to accommodate wheelchairs, or putting handrails in the bathroom, can sometimes decrease the value of the home or the buying pool. Usually, prospective buyers aren’t looking for homes renovated for aging in place. (Alternatively, these changes can be positive if you live in a region where more buyers want such renovations.)

Downsizing to a smaller place

Moving from a house to an apartment or condo is a common choice for individuals and couples who don’t need as much space as they once did. You can also choose a place where someone else will shovel the snow, mow the lawn, and unclog the kitchen sink. Whether you move in the same neighborhood or across the country, this can be a new adventure.


Lauren didn’t want to live with her kids, but we explored other potential roommates. Home-sharing is one of my favorite housing options, because you have the company of roommates and you share costs while still enjoying independence. This is the obvious choice for multigenerational living, but it’s also great for bunking up with pals or finding others in the same position looking for a new home.

When people are well matched, home- sharing can be like creating a new family. If you’re older, think of this as The Golden Girls in real life. Independent companies will match your personality traits with multiple compatible roommates for you to choose from and handle the legal and financial paperwork and payments. One of the companies I’ve worked with is Silvernest, which you can learn more about at www.silvernest.com.

Home-sharing isn’t for those who prioritize their privacy above all else. If you choose this option and haven’t lived with someone for a long time, it may take a while to adjust to having people in your living space. In addition, if you need services in the future, you’ll have to move or bring in help.

Active adult independent living communities

One thing about Lauren was that she loved people. She lit up when I told her about independent living communities, housing designed exclusively for older adults, usually fifty-five-plus. The types of housing range widely, from apartments to detached condos and single-family homes. Some stand alone; others are part of communities with other levels of care (as I go into below). Independent living offers a great sense of community but also safety, independence, companionship, and activities. If there comes a time you need more services, you can hire them or move to a community that provides them.

Village networks

Villages are membership-driven, grassroots, nonprofit organizations run by volunteers and staff to help people stay in their homes by increasing access to services. You stay put and the Village coordinates services you may need — transportation, home repair, activities, and more. You get a sense of community and camaraderie while living independently. Generally, health care is not provided. You can find Villages throughout the country at www.vtvnetwork.org.

Assisted living

Lauren was fortunate to be in good health, but she also wanted to understand options should she begin to need help. We discussed assisted living communities, which are often small apartments in a single community composed of people who do not require round-the-clock medical care but want some day-to-day help with daily tasks such as getting dressed or performing housework. The meals, services, and activities available at assisted living facilities span widely between different communities.

Nursing homes/skilled nursing communities

This option is for people who need significant medical and custodial care (that is, care with general activities of daily living) but don’t need to be in a hospital. You’ll be in good company, as nearly 1.5 million people receive care in a nursing home. Unfortunately, nursing homes can be expensive, averaging $90,000 per year. Still, they are often less expensive than paying for twenty-four-hour care in your home.

Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs)

Continuing care retirement communities offer long-term care options for people who want to stay in the same place through different phases of the aging process. CCRCs generally have levels for independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing, and sometimes memory care.

About two-thirds charge an entry fee, sometimes refundable, which can be hefty — on average $329,000, but fees can top $1 million at some communities.  Others operate on a rental basis with lower to no upfront fees. Care, meals, and activities are available on-premises, providing a sense of stability and familiarity as a resident’s abilities or health conditions change. Many offer private spaces to rent so residents can entertain. In the CCRCs my clients have moved to, the food options are plentiful and delicious.

Narrowing your options

Several glasses of wine and mugs of coffee later, Lauren opened up to me about her finances, which are critical to making wise decisions. It turned out Lauren was lucky. She confided in me that she had the resources to move anywhere she wanted. For many people, their finances limit their choices. In some cases, moving in with family members is the only affordable option. Factor into your decision the money you have for decluttering consultants, packers, and movers.

As we talked, Lauren’s vision slowly came into focus. She admitted that keeping up with the cleaning and yard work was too much. She also admitted to feeling a little lonely in the big, empty house. Her home was terrific for a family, but now she basically used just four rooms: the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and living room. We talked a lot about loneliness. That, I’ve learned over the years, has helped guide people’s decisions in where they move.

And we continued to talk about her fears. Like so many people, Lauren lived under the misconception that moving into housing designed for older people meant that she would have to live in some cold, depressing asylum. She envisioned the type she saw on old TV shows like Murder She Wrote or Matlock: places with full-time supervised care, meals, and activities.

We spoke about how she wouldn’t be giving up control of her life. She was taking control. That’s what planning and decision making provide us with — control over our own lives. When we procrastinate, or simply avoid making a decision at all, we are giving up the ability to control our own destiny. In fact, because of the fear of losing control, we are actually losing control by not taking action on our own.

As we talked, it became clear that Lauren didn’t want to leave her home, even as she acknowledged that she was feeling isolated and wanted a stronger social network. She looked at items she’d had for sixty years — where to even start thinking about letting go of some of that stuff?

I’ve learned that it’s much easier for someone to sort through books than it is to make a decision about the next phase of life.

Over the decades, Lauren and her family had built a wonderful life in the place she had called home for many years. She had raised her children between those walls, enjoyed a wonderful marriage there. She was terrified at the thought of losing control over her life. Better to keep things as they were, she thought, vacillating, delaying, ignoring, even if the situation was becoming untenable. Her strong sense of pride and fear of losing control over her day-to-day life kept her in a place she knew was no longer right for her.

Eventually, though, Lauren told me she wanted to look into alternative options where she could enjoy companionship. I told her we could find a place that would offer her an even better social life than she was currently enjoying! That’s the beauty of housing options — there are so many of them, catered to fit whatever you’re looking for.

After consulting some friends about where they live, Lauren decided that she wanted to move into an active fifty-five-plus independent living community. This wasn’t an easy decision for her, and it isn’t easy for anyone — it’s a major life choice, one that involves leaving the past behind. Her announcement counted as major progress, and I was very proud of her.

“That’s the plan,” she said.

But really, that was the extent of her plan. She didn’t yet know exactly where she was moving to. You can’t even pack well for a vacation, let alone a move, if you don’t know the details of where you’ll be going. That would have to be our next decision.

Placement agencies

I didn’t know about them at the time, but now that I have more experience, I would have recommended that Lauren meet with a senior placement agency. These are companies that work with older people and their families to consider various housing options. Here’s what you need to know about placement agencies.

Placement agencies are usually a free service to consumers; communities pay the fees upon placement. Agencies help individuals and families find the best place for them, taking into account finances, location, social preferences, medical needs, and other factors. Placement agencies can be a lifeline, providing expert guidance on housing options. But be sure to select a company that works with as many communities as possible — and note that they probably don’t work with smaller communities.

If they only work with a few and are paid directly by them, they might not have your best interests in mind. You don’t want a company that prioritizes its bottom line over your well-being. Research the agencies and look at their online customer ratings. Just as you would with an accountant or lawyer, interview multiple placement agencies to find the right fit for you and your family.

Here’s one piece of advice I tell my clients: Before moving, visit the places you’re considering — whether in town, in an- other state, or in another country. Visit for at least a few days, if you can. Let me take a brief detour to explain why.

I informed my dad that I wanted to attend the University of Richmond because that was where the Richmond Spiders basketball team played . He told me to visit the campus and check out two things: the student parking lot and the faculty parking lot. Although I didn’t understand his reasoning, I followed his advice. When I walked through the student lot, I saw that it was packed with Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, and SUVs. Fancy cars, all. The faculty lot, meanwhile, had cars most people drive. In fact, I even saw a maroon 1984 Honda Accord, which I proudly drove.

It was clear that instead of the heaven that I imagined it to be, the University of Richmond would not be a good fit for me. Instead, I opted for something humbler, a small place called Mary Washington College (now called the University of Mary Washington). It proved to be an excellent decision, and it came about only because I visited both schools. And figuring out the right college is a decision about where to spend just four years — a move to a new place involves a choice about where to spend decades, ideally.

This article is an excerpt from the book “Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff” by Matt Paxton, a downsizing and cleaning expert, speaker, author, radio personality, and host of the two-time Emmy nominated television show “Legacy List with Matt Paxton.”






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