In traditional family hierarchies, the parents nurture their children. But at some point, those roles often reverse. Adult children one day will provide care and comfort for their aging parents, which may include helping them downsize their living space and navigate complex legal matters. It can be an overwhelming and emotional process, wrought with tough decisions.
For New Orleanian Gary English, that process began when he and his mother Dorothy determined that she needed to move in with him and his family.
Dorothy, who was 89 years old at the time, had been living independently in a Metairie apartment for nearly 10 years. She still was "pretty active," Gary says.
"She was no longer driving her car, but she was getting out fairly often," he adds, explaining how she relied on taxicabs to run errands. "She wasn't into Uber."
But Dorothy's bustling lifestyle came to an end when she fell while preparing for a trip to a hair salon. The incident landed her in the hospital and left her with broken ribs, a broken finger and some bumps and bruises.
Dorothy was in severe pain. She couldn't get in and out of bed on her own, and she had to rely on a walker, which made it difficult to cook and do chores around her home. Dorothy and Gary realized new living arrangements were necessary.
"I had a bedroom for her with a bathroom attached to it, so it was very convenient for her," Gary says, noting that it was still disheartening for Dorothy to leave her own home.
Gary also had to confront the legal issues associated with becoming his mother's caretaker. He didn't hire a lawyer since his mother "didn't have a lot of assets left where she would have had to pay estate or inheritance taxes," he says. But he did obtain power of attorney (POA) documents that made him the primary decision maker for his mother's medical and financial matters. His brother became the secondary decision maker.
"I could see that at her age, those things needed to be taken care of, and she was very agreeable to that," Gary says. "She knew it needed to be done. She knew that I needed to start paying her bills and making decisions for her."
However, people in situations similar to Gary's would benefit from calling a lawyer.
The 'triumvirate' of legal documents
Vincent B. "Chip" LoCoco is an estate planning attorney and partner at Many & LoCoco.
"[Estate planning] deals with handling people's estates after they pass away," he says. He works with executors (or administrators) in handling the affairs of the deceased and distributing assets to heirs (without a will) or legatees (under a will).
"I get their affairs in order so that when they pass away, their property goes to who they want it to go to, how they want it to get there," LoCoco says.
It also entails the three documents LoCoco calls "the triumvirate of estate planning": a will, a POA and a living will.
A POA dictates who will act on the person's behalf when he or she is incapacitated or simply needs assistance in handling certain affairs. The power of attorney can apply to financial or medical matters, or both.
The third document, the Louisiana living will, "tells your family, the doctors and everyone what your desires are regarding end-of-life medical issues," LoCoco says.
LoCoco urges prospective clients to agree on a fee arrangement with an attorney before beginning the planning process. The attorney also can collaborate with the client's financial adviser and certified public accountant (CPA), he says.
"That team of people can get together and come up with the best avenue to get the client where they want to be and give them a feeling that at least they have a road to travel," LoCoco says. "At the end, everything will be handled properly and taken care of."
In addition to the legal details, adults helping elderly parents downsize also must help decide what to do with the all of their possessions, furniture and stuff.
Sorting through a person's lifetime of belongings is a major undertaking. Beth Cathey, business manager of The Occasional Wife, works with clients planning estate sales and urges them to be patient.
"It's a very emotional (process), which is often why they hire us, because we don't have the emotional contact with the items," Cathey says. "Both the family and the parents can get caught up in the emotion by sitting there and going back through time, and they don't make progress."
Some items carry sentimental value, some are family heirlooms and some may be useful down the road. There may not be enough room in the new space for those treasures, and placing them in storage is pricey.
Dorothy English distributed her furniture and many of her other belongings among her sons and grandchildren. For those who don't have this option, an estate sale ensures a second life for those objects — and can bring in some money.
These sale events can take place in the home, with the items displayed in their usual spot, or you can host the sale elsewhere, such as The Occasional Wife's estate sale store.
The store attracts a wide range of clients, from interior designers to college students, and is crammed with everything imaginable — caneback chairs, framed artwork, Japanese-style room dividers, vintage fur stoles, dinnerware, doe-eyed Precious Moments figurines and Christmas decorations. All items are sold on consignment.
"When you used to think of an estate sale, you thought of higher-end antique items," Cathey says. "Now, because people are downsizing, that definition is much broader. We get everything. Unless it's broken, we try to find a way that someone can reuse that item."
The Occasional Wife helps clients organize the home for an on-site estate sale, pack up possessions that are going to the new home or to relatives, decide which items should be donated to charity and which can be sold and stage the home to go on the market. Staging the estate sale in the home and then arranging to transport unsold items to the store also is an option.
"Many times, we're called in from stage one, meaning we may have a client who is either going to sell a home or going into an assisted living facility," Cathey says. "The family brings us in from the beginning because they don't know what to do. We tell the family, leave everything as it is — even the cleaning supplies — because you never know what somebody may buy."
Cathey and her colleagues help clients decide which items to keep and which to sell.
"If you're going to tuck it away and look at it 10 years from now, then you can probably let it go," she says. "But we have to be able to do that and be sensitive when we're working with them."
Big Easy Estate Sales collaborates with clients who prefer to stage the estate sale in the home.
"They are coming to me directly, or their children are coming to me, and asking me to work with them on liquidating the contents of their home," says owner Jonathan Wells.
The process begins with a phone call between Wells and his client to determine the time frame of the sale. He says listening with compassion is critical at this stage.
"Are they trying to get the house on the market? Are they calling me in the beginning part of the transition? Or, are they calling me at the last minute?" Wells says. "We then find the best formula that fits their needs."
Wells schedules two walk-throughs of the client's home to help them decide what to keep and what to sell, then sets a date for the sale, which typically spans two days. After the sale, Wells helps the family clean up and make donation arrangements.
"People find satisfaction in knowing that their personal things that they've worked so hard to get through the years are going to good homes," Wells says. He and his team try to make a difficult time easier to get through. "Let us handle the house, the contents and everything that's involved with that. We're professionals, and we know what we're doing."
After a year of living with Gary and his family, Dorothy began having anxiety attacks and experiencing health issues.
"We realized that my mom needed more supervision," Gary says. He hired sitters to stay with her, but round-the-clock home care became too expensive, and they moved her into St. Margaret's at Belleville assisted living facility, where she lived for 18 months until her death.
Although he had witnessed friends endure similar experiences with their parents, Gary says it felt "different" when it was his turn.
"You learn your way through it," he says. "You're never really sure if what you're doing is the right thing. But if you're doing what you think is in your loved one's best interest, then you have a clear conscience."