Heirloom Guilt

Heirloom Guilt

Hi, my name is Sara and I have heirloom guilt. What is heirloom guilt? It’s a mental health issue, kind of. A psychological block that brings about feelings of guilt at having to get rid of family “heirlooms”. And I use heirloom loosely. It sounds fancier than “getting rid of the “crap my family couldn’t” guilt”.

I openly admit to still, after nearly 18 months, having most of my grandmother’s belongings in storage. Some of it has been in storage for almost 4 years since we put some things in storage when she moved to Phoenix. But, at that time, it was her stuff. It wasn’t for me to discard. She and I would discuss going to the storage until “when it was cooler”, “when I feel better”, “when I’m not so tired”, “after the holidays”. You know, later. Another time. A time when the memories won’t flood and make her sad. Sad to be without both of her children and husband. Sad to think that soon she would leave me alone.

Those days going to the storage unit never came. After she passed away I only had a short time to clear out her apartment. So nearly all of it went into storage. And now, nearly two years later it’s still there. Untouched. In the same boxes I packed long ago believing I would go through it “when it was warmer”, “when I had an unscheduled weekend”, “later”.

The reality is that I don’t need any of the things in storage. I’ve done fine without them this long. Organization experts say that if you haven’t used something in 12 months it’s time to get rid of it. But this is my family’s history. Memories. Connection. Our past. How do you get rid of someone’s past?

All rhetorical questions, I know. It happens every day. People purge stuff all the time. We move. We downsize. We get tired of dust collectors. The bags and boxes fill up, we pile them in the car, and drop them at the donation center without making much eye contact lest they see we aren’t sure we should be doing this.

I know I can’t keep everything that’s packed into two storage units. Actually, I can’t keep most of it. I also can’t keep paying the monthly storage fee. That’s idiotic. I’ve already paid several thousand dollars. If I hold on to it for a few more years I could have bought a really nice car with the money paid to store all this stuff. That’s kind of stupid. My grandparents taught me better about using my money wisely. Ugh, more guilt!

Heirloom guilt is very real. Sometimes it’s debilitating. I drive to the storage unit but can’t even go in to the locker. It’s overwhelming to think about getting rid of my past. My memories. My history. At the same time, though, it will all just end up a pike of garbage if I do nothing.

I think of selling or giving it away and my heart gets heavy, my chest becomes tight, the adrenaline starts to rush, and the thoughts of not having a past swirl. I think of those who lose everything to fire, flood, war. I think of them and try to understand that the stuff isn’t what hold my memories. I hold the memories. I am responsible for sharing those memories. For sharing the past. That this stuff can’t speak and tell the story. If I don’t tell their story they’re worthless.

Ultimately, though, it’s not about the stuff or the memories. It’s about my own realization that I’m the last one. That I’m alone, in some sense of the word. That my family is gone and all I have are these trinkets. And either I let go of the guilt or I’ll be controlled by it.

So, I take a deep breath and close my eyes. And believe that it’s OK for me to let go of the stuff. And the guilt.


Selling My Childhood Home

Lock and key

And for one last time I turned the key, locked the door, and walked away. Never to return. And despite going to Texas for this specific reason, knowing I am nearing the end of the book, not just the chapter, I began to sob. I sat in the car for at least 20 minutes with memories flooding my mind, unable to actually focus and see the house.

My grandparents built this house in 1968, fully intending to spend their golden years there. They were almost 50 and their children were grown. Within two years I would be living there, with my grandparents and mother as she navigated being a single parent. It would be a place my mother and I would stop when out on errands. It’s where I would ask to go to just talk to my grandpa when my grandma was playing bingo. It’s where I would always call home until I got married.


I would live in the house for a few years when my mom worked nights. I would walk in to the house after school when I was in second grade, after it had been robbed. I would be in this house to welcome my grandparents home from their many trips to far-off lands.

There were birthday parties, break fast dinners, Thanksgiving feasts, Hanukkah celebrations, and Passover seders. Lots of them. With lots of people. It would also be full of people for wedding celebrations as well as funerals. I can hear the buzz of the dryer. And the quiet as I did my homework at the kitchen table alone before my grandparents came home.


I remember the kitchen table with the divot in it from when my grandfather’s handgun discharged as he prepared to clean it. The corner cabinet in the dining room, made by my grandfather. The antique curved-glass dessert cart that sat in front of the picture window. And the 1950s Grundig stereo that my grandfather would listen to, which now sits in my house.

For the past year I’ve been ready to sell the house. I’ve gone back and packed up, cleaned, and prepared for this moment. I was focused and methodical. This wasn’t emotional. There were no tears. The house had to be sold. I didn’t want to keep going back and forth to take care of it and my grandmother was no longer able to do it herself. It was a stark reality and I approached it very business-like.

That was until I turned the key that one last time. I can never go back. I’ll never walk through the door again and hear the laughter, the tears, or the silence. It’s all gone. It’s not my grandparent’s house any more. The house may be gone, but the memories. I will always have those.


Sometimes I’m Mad That My Mom Died

Gratitude Coins

Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. ~ Melody Beattie

It’s officially been more than half my life that my mom has been gone. It was difficult coming to terms with that day when I would say that I’ve been without my mom longer than being with her. And after 22 years you’d think I’ve have sorted through all these feelings.

Unfortunately, no. I still miss my mom every day. I missed her being at my wedding. She wasn’t there to become a grandma when BabyGirl was born. And now she’s not here to help me with my Grandma, her mother. There’s no one but me to care for my Grandma. And while my Grandma’s quite independent at 93, being in my 40s means I’m in a very different place in my life than where my mom would be if she were alive. My mom would be in her late 60s with much different obligations for her time.

Me? I have a 10 year old child who is very involved in violin and karate and school and just being 10. Taking care of a tween is time-consuming. It’s supposed to be. Parenting is a full-time job. I also have a “real” job as a lawyer and despite my Grandma telling people I’m a lawyer she doesn’t think I actually work with clients because I don’t talk about it. Well, uh, no I don’t. Those little things called confidentiality and attorney/client privilege don’t really allow for that. So, to her, I don’t work.

And while when she was in her 40s and volunteered, she can’t seem to understand I do the same and that takes time. I sit on the board of 2 non-profits, teach math to precocious kids, and work with a national organization to advocate for kids. Again, because I don’t blather on and on about me, me, me then I must be sitting at home eating bon-bons. And this blog? She has no understanding of the internet and despite having explained and shown it’s just some “computer thing” I do.

I don’t say these things to paint my Grandma in a negative light. She’s 93 and has memory issues related to vascular dementia. It’s what I have to deal with. It creates a lot of problems because I try to give her autonomy and independence but it just ends up with me having to clean up after her with regard to financial and medical decisions.

For the past few months I’ve been working really hard at not being mad at my mom for dying. I know she didn’t do it on purpose. I know she would rather have lived than end up in a coma for 6-weeks while her family fought over how to allow her to die. I know she would be taking care of my grandma and asking me for advice rather than demanding my time, being passive aggressive about my help, and telling people that I don’t do anything to help, like my Grandma does.

I miss my mom terribly. I think about the “if” and how it would be easier for me. That if she were here I wouldn’t be up at 2am working because I spend 5 hours dealing with the doctors and pharmacy. If she were here I wouldn’t have to hear that I’ve moved my Grandma to a prison and took her car away.

But she’s not here and I can’t change what my life is now. You see, I’m not a mean granddaughter. I call almost every day, but then she thinks I’m checking up on her too often. I do her errands, take her shopping, to lunch, have her over for dinner. And I do all of this because I love my Grandmother and I know this is what needs to be done.

So I tune out the negative that seeps in from my Grandma and I fight back the sadness and anger I feel because my mom died more than half my life ago. When I start to hear myself thinking I shouldn’t have to be doing this, I try to stop myself from going down that path. It’s more a slippery slope than a path, really. No, I shouldn’t have to do this. But if not me, then who? There’s no one left.

And so I remind myself that every night her brother will call her and tell her what a great granddaughter she has. And I realize how fortunate I am and that it’s OK sometimes to be mad that my mom died and isn’t here. That she may have left, but I have someone who knows I’m doing my best and who appreciates the sacrifices I’m making to ensure his sister enjoys these last years of her life. I miss my mom, and I think she understands the times when I’m mad she died.

Photo Credit: Tiger Girl, Licensed under Creative Commons


In The End, All Our Stuff Isn’t Worth Much

Grundig Stereo

This is the stereo my grandparents bought in Germany in 1965. It’s now in my home.

For the past two weekends I’ve travelled to Texas to pack up my grandmother’s home. She hasn’t lived there for nine months, but she still calls it home. Probably why I haven’t been able to sell the house.

At the beginning of April I drove my Grandmother back so she can get her “important papers”. Never mind that if it was so important to go without it for nine months, it’s probably not all that important. But, I’m a dutiful granddaughter so I took her. I was going to figure out what state of disarray the house was in given that my grandmother hired an estate sale lady. That trip resulted in me calling 911 at 12:30am and my grandma spending the weekend in the hospital while I packed.

When I got to the house there was no water. Who knows how long the water to the house had been shut off, but it was. And I wanted to figure out why. So I finally figured out that the main water valve to the house was turned off, so I turned it on. Only to enter the house and hear gushing water. The hot water valve to the (now non-existing) water was corroded in the on position. So flaming hot water was spraying all over the garage. I think it only took me 4 giant leaps to get from the garage, out the front door and to the street to turn off the valve. After which I proceeded to clean up this huge mess. With bed sheets I tore off the bed because there were no towels of any sort in the house. Ugh!

Yes, this woman my grandmother hired sold the washing machine and knew there was a water issue but didn’t say anything. Fortunately, someone had enough sense to actually turn off the water. For that I’m grateful. For everything else, this woman has caused me so much grief. So with the water main turned off, I call – on a Friday night at 6pm, mind you – a plumber and wait around until 9pm. It was a quick fix, luckily.

All the while, I’m seething. I walked in to my grandparent’s house to what could be described as a ransacked mess. It was no wonder the house wasn’t getting showings or attracting a buyer. My Grandmother hired this “estate sale” woman. I didn’t know her name until I took the card from my Grandmother to call and demand this woman show up the next day to hand over the money she collected. While the house was a disaster, I knew quite a few things were gone (dare I say “sold”). It was easy to identify the larger pieces, but having gone through the house documenting everything I knew how much of the china, crystal, and collectibles were gone too.

My Grandma often describes her things with adjectives like “valuable”, “expensive”, “collectible”. She’s fond of telling me how much things cost, how they’re worth a lot. And while she does (or did) have some valuable pieces I was handed an envelope with $1,400 in it. This woman my grandmother hired sold about half my Grandmother’s belongings for less than $2,000. And I was left to deal with the fall out.

There’s nothing I can do. Except to pack up the rest of the house and wash my hands of this “estate sale expert”. I’m frustrated on so many levels. I’m the granddaughter. I give my grandmother her autonomy as much as possible. But she’s 93 and while she does not have Alzheimer’s, she has signs of vascular dementia which have caused her to exercise poor judgement and decision-making. And this was just one more example.

This past week CycleGuy and I packed up the house and brought it all back to Phoenix. It’s virtually empty, except for a few things in the garage I need to donate. My grandparent’s life has been packed up into 43 boxes and put in storage. A few pieces have been taken to my Grandma’s apartment (which is already bursting at the seams).

I’ve locked up the storage unit filled with boxes, many of which have “sell/donate” on them. My Grandma lived in her house for almost 45 years. But as I locked up the house, the “things” that were all so important and valuable meant nothing to anyone else. There is no dollar value for much of the things we have. I’m finding this out first hand. People may buy your things, they don’t buy your memories. And it’s the memories that  are most valuable. Everything else is just “stuff”.



What’s Another Word For Advocate?

 Grandma at Concert

She calls me, again, to complain about lunch. It’s the same story she told me about dinner and breakfast. The dining room didn’t give her what she asked for, they talked to her like she’s an idiot or they took too long. This is my life now that my grandma lives in a senior living center.

Senior living center sounds so nice. For the most part it is nice. It’s not her house of 44-years. Where just 9 months ago she lived in a 2,000 square foot house with a large yard and laundry room, today my grandma lives in a one-bedroom apartment with the laundry facility down the hall.

I’ve made 4 separate trips back to her house to get more of her things. The house isn’t sold yet. Yet! Every day I hope the realtor will send me an email requesting my signature on an appropriate offer. I hope. Every day. Because being responsible for all this sucks. Yes, I said it. And there is no other word that’s nicer than that or I’d use it.

I’m still her granddaughter. But years ago I became her advocate too. My grandma’s 92 and still lives by herself in her own apartment. She cooks for herself, although she can go to the dining room daily if she chooses. To listen to her, you’d think she was in a minimum security prison. Actually, she does refer to her currently living arrangement as living in a prison. So, I deal with that too.

I often go to the doctor’s appointments with her just so I know what’s going on. But even though she’s physically slow, mentally she’s as sharp as a tack and will freely tell you she has all her faculties. And yes, she is quite sharp. Unfortunately, though, there are times when she’s not. And I end up having to clean up whatever mess or misunderstanding occurs.

There are times when being an advocate means I have to be, well, assertive. I’ll call it assertive. I’m sure the various people who experience this “assertiveness” have another word to describe me. My philosophy now is that if it won’t get my grandma thrown out of her apartment or banished from an appropriate doctor then I’m going to be unapologetically assertive.

Being an advocate for an elderly family member is hard. Advocating for your child is not easy either, but for some reason the lack of compassion many people have for the elderly is disturbing. They’re not cute and cuddly little kids with big doe eyes and a smile that says “I’m just a sweet kid”. No, they’re cranky and vocal and filter-less. And when they’ve lived 8 complete decades plus, they’re quick to let you know that they’ve seen it, been there, done that, and don’t want to listen to how impossible anything is.

My grandmother’s a three-time cancer survivor. She’s outlived both of her children, 7 of her siblings, and her husband of 50+ years. She’s lived in the frigid winters of Minnesota and Bavaria, the humid-filled summers of Florida and the dry heat of the desert southwest. She’s been to over 35 different countries and can list off nearly every one of them. She’s volunteered tens of thousands of hours. Her best friend is her “baby brother”, who is 85, and she talks to him every day and has for the last 15+ years.

Most of the time none of that seems relevant to the person I have to talk with about services for my grandmother. Often she’s relegated to being the dependent of a sponsor known only by the last for digits of his social security number. I’ve said that number so many times in the past year that I know it by heart. My grandfather’s social security number is all she is to some people. And that sucks, because she’s so much more than that.

Less and less I am her granddaughter and more and more I’m her advocate. Or, if some other people had their choice I’m sure it would be something else. This is my life now and, really, I don’t mind it. But it puts a lot of other things into perspective. It’s not that I don’t care or that things don’t bother me. It’s just different now. And probably will be for awhile.



3 Tips To Better Understanding Elder Care

My Grandparents at my wedding
My grandparents at my wedding

My Bubbe is in the hospital. In another state. And I’m her primary point of contact. While her brother is still alive, he’s in his 80s and lives in yet another state.

My Bubbe (Grandmother) lives alone. At 91, I hope I’m still as independent as she is. And while I may not think her driving is up to par, the state thinks so and she still drives.

Unfortunately, several weeks ago she fell. She blacked out or got light headed while putting her groceries away in the garage. She’s not so sure of all the details. Fortunately, she didn’t break anything. Unfortunately, with two knee replacements and not being about to use her arms to pull herself up due to limitations from her single radical mastectomy and lymph node removal, Bubbe was stuck. So she did what she had to do and she scooted herself back into the house. It took her about an hour to do that. In doing this she pulled leg and arm muscles and was unable to stand on her own.

I get a lof of questions from friends and family as to why she doesn’t have a medical emergency bracelet or necklace, and why she’s still living on her own, and how I can allow this to happen. Here’s the thing, she’s 91 years old. Listening to me isn’t how she got to be 91 so she’s not going to start. Sure, I provide suggestions and offer insight but she makes her own decisions.

So here are my 3 Tips to Understanding Elder Care. Whether you’re the one who has to have the discussion with your older family member or if you’re thinking ahead or offering suggestions to friends or family, I hope these help you.

1. Competent adults don’t have to do what other people want them to do – My Bubbe is sharp as razor wire on a maximum security prison! She may not hear as well and she may be slower when it comes to getting around, but don’t test her mental capacity. This goes for almost everything – convincing them they shouldn’t drive, suggesting they eat more healthfully, offering insight about health care or where they should live. This is one of those situations where you need to break out the honey and pack that vinegar far, far away. Gentle suggestions will always work better than ultimatums. Best way to tick off an older family member is to think they’re incompetent just because they’re slow or hard of hearing.

2. You are their advocate, regardless of how strong they are – This is my role. While Bubbe likes to threaten inept health care providers with me suing them (which I’ve never done because I don’t do litigation), the fact remains that if she’s not getting the care she needs, whether at home or in a hospital/care facility setting, it is my job to advocate for her. There are ways to do it in a professional and appropriate manner. But just as you can’t make them do something they don’t want to do, care professionals must follow the patient’s wishes unless there are medical reasons not to do so. For me, this is my biggest challenge – ensuring my grandmother gets the care she’s supposed to get. If you’ve ever seen the bills following the hospital stay of your elder relative I’m sure you were surprised to see all the services charged for but never received. In this instance, Bubbe needs physical therapy and despite the doctor’s orders she’s not getting it. When I’m in another state I have to rely on her to tell me she’s not getting the care. Then it’s my job to talk to the care facility. She’s my number one priority in this discussion, regardless of what excuses may be made. Unless I am given a legitimate reason for not giving her the therapy, they’ll continue to hear from me. Even if it requires me to go there in person. No, it’s not always convenient but I take this role seriously.

3. Have signed paperwork! – You never know when your elder family member won’t be able to make decisions for themselves. That is not the time to find out they don’t have a health care power of attorney or advanced directive. It’s not an easy discussion, but it needs to be done ‘in case’. Furthermore, in this day of HIPPA where most, if not all, healthcare information is private you don’t want to be in a situation where you can’t get answers and you can’t offer help or make decisions. This doesn’t just apply to elder family members, this applies to any family member (other than minor children) where you could potentially be a decision maker. While I have all the paperwork I need, the health care industry is not equipped to deal with long distance decision making. Without being able to properly identify you over the phone, getting information about your family member is futile. And frustrating. Some facilities and institutions do have processes in place for setting up PIN codes or security words, but getting that information after the fact isn’t helpful. Ask ahead of time!

Our parents and grandparents are living longer. We’re dealing with issues that prior generations didn’t have to deal with – HIPPA, living far away, financial matters. It’s not always the child needing to care for an elder parent. Often it’s stepchildren, or nieces/nephews or grandchildren or cousins. The extended family has created these strong relationships that have lead to these new relationships when it comes to elder care. It’s not an easy discussion, I know. But, we’re all dealing with it in some way. Whether it’s our parent going through this with an older family member or a friend caring for their older relative, we all come face to face with the reality that elder care is not only on the rise but potentially on our own horizon.

Does elder care impact you or your family? If so, what suggestions or tip can you offer to help others care for their family member with honor and dignity?



Elder Care: From a granddaughter’s perspective

Bubbe photo

That’s my grandmother, my Bubbe. BabyGirl and I went to visit her in December because she doesn’t like to travel. Actually, she loves to travel. Only traveling now is much more complicated since she needs oxygen at night. And then there is all that TSA stuff. So, we go visit her.

I’ve mentioned my grandma before. Last year she celebrated her 90th birthday. She still lives in the only house I’ve ever known. She and my grandpa had it built in 1968. She’s a very independent woman!

Every few weeks I’ll get a call from my aunt, a neighbor, one of my Grandma’s friends asking if she’s visiting me because they can’t get a hold of her. This has been going on for about six months. And every time I tell them no and reassure them that she’s just fine, having spoken to her just days prior. They’ll sigh a sigh of relief, thank me and assure me they’ll stop by her house to be sure she’s fine.

My grandmother has outlived most people she started life with. She has buried both of her children (my mother had a stroke in her 40s and my uncle died of Lupus-related complications in his early 40s) and her husband. Of her seven siblings, only her ‘baby brother’ remains. And he’s in his 80s.

It’s almost weekly now that my grandma tells me she’s going to a funeral. I guess at 90, that’s just part of life. She has very few friends, peers, still living. Most of her friends are significantly younger. Then again, my grandma doesn’t seem to think she’s really 90!

When you’re 90 and live on your own, most people are in awe. I certainly am! After all she’s lived through the Great Depression, wars, conflicts, and 17 presidents. Woodrow Wilson was president when she was born. She’s seen the world change before her eyes. From no television to the ability to stream live events in the palm of her hand. No telephone to its ubiquity.

Yet here I am, the primary responsible party (I use that term loosely because really, my grandma is very responsible for herself) being bombarded with ‘friends’ and relatives telling me she can’t live on her own any more. They have no real reason for that other than she’s 90 and perceived to be frail.

And while I don’t like when my grandma drives, she is as good a driver as most people out there. Her hearing isn’t as keen as it once was but she’s not a danger. She drives no more crazy than she’s always driven. Actually, I think she’s more cautious now because she realizes her hearing isn’t up to par. Truth be told, she’s never caused an accident in all her driving. She’s been involved in accidents, but never the cause. So she’s got that going for her.

Most of the issues relate to her forgetfulness. Some people try to tell me she has Alzheimers. Far from it! Cancer three times, yes. Alzheimers? No. However, she does have symptoms of vascular dementia. But according to her doctors it’s normal given her medical history. Nothing to worry about they keep saying.

I talk to my grandmother several times a week. Her brother talks to her every day. If ever there is a time we can’t find her for 24 hours straight I can call her local police and they’ll check on her. They know her by name. She bakes treats for the precinct every few weeks. If she hasn’t been by in awhile they stop by. It’s like a TV show when she walks in, balancing two big chocolate cakes – cheers of “Hello, Mrs. Greenberg!”, “So nice to see you, Mrs. Greenberg!” and “Thank you, Mrs. Greenberg!” echo in the stark halls.

But she’s 90, will be 91 in a few months. I know she’s not that same spry young woman who helped raise me. And regardless of my age, to her I’m still a child. Not that I’m incapable, but when it comes to some decisions she wants to make them on her own. Thankfully her brother is there to team up with me to make sure she’s making good decisions.

Our newest issue has to do with her moving out of her home. She doesn’t want to. She see no reason for it. And, honestly, I’m no so sure I disagree. Yes, it’s a lot to deal with. Sure, it is not easy making 3 meals a day. Heck I’m half her age and I have troubles making 3 meals a day! She cares for herself, drives to her appointments, visits and shopping.

Who am I to tell her she has to leave her home? I know she needs some help, but she’s not too keen on that. She keeps forgetting that she’s 90! In her mind she’s still very young. When she turned 90 she told me she was starting to feel old. Starting!

I’ve watched as some of my friends have had to find care for their aging parents. I’ve helped them pour over brochures of what look like Disney for the senior set. It’s very different because this is my grandmother, not my mother. For my uncle it’s a challenge as well because it’s his big sister. The dynamic is very different. But our desire for them to be safe is the same.

I knew this time would come. Actually I’ve been listening to people tell me what to do about it since my grandmother had her last cancer surgery nearly 3 years ago. I’ve been ignoring them for a long time. But now they’re getting very loud.

I have always had a great respect for my friends who care for their aging parents. I’ve watched how they gracefully transitioned from child to caregiver. I’ve taken mental notes, bookmarked websites and have read and read and read. And yet, I’m at a loss as to how to do this dance with my grandmother.