Time To Move Grandma: What To Do With Her Home?

May 22, 2012
Originally published on May 29, 2012 9:04 am

Making the decision to move a parent out of the homestead can hurt.

The house may be full of good ghosts and happy memories. But it also has too many steps and too much lawn to mow. So the time comes to pack up and move on.

A decade ago, at least one part of that transition wasn't so tough. When the for-sale sign went up, an eager buyer was likely to show up with a good offer. But today, families are facing a much more difficult real estate environment.

Over the past five years, home prices have plunged by roughly a third. During that same period, the annual cost of residing in an assisted-living facility has increased 5.7 percent per year, according to a recent survey by Genworth, a long-term care insurance provider.

So what should be done with the house? Try selling in a depressed market? Or rent it until prices perk up? Or would it make more sense to take out a reverse mortgage and try to stay in the house, using cash from the transaction to hire more help?

"The market's bad," Frank Christian, 58, of Glen Allen, Va., says when discussing his family's dilemma about selling the house he owned along with his mother, Ida Christian, 89. He and his mother are members of one of three families being profiled in an NPR series, Family Matters: The Money Squeeze. The series looks at the financial decisions that are being made in multigenerational households.

For the past three years, Ida, whose Alzheimer's disease is worsening, has been living with her daughter, Geneva Hunter, 66. To help pay for her mother's care, Geneva needed her brother Frank to sell the house and get as much cash as possible to help pay for Ida's care.

Frank is himself a real estate agent. So he knows the value of living in your own home. But he also knows that a time comes when having a house is too much for an elderly person. At this point, selling "would free up money we could use for her overnight care," he said.

The family's situation is common as more people move into advanced old age. About 6 million Americans are now 85 or older — an age when homeownership becomes almost impossible for most.

Realtor John Mike, a Re/Max agent in West Palm Beach, Fla., said selling a house can generate cash for hiring help for an elderly person. But too often, he says, adult children dump their parents' houses too quickly at very low prices.

When a crisis hits — say, dad dies and mom needs to move in with a child — the family may see the house as a source of immediate cash to help pay for the move and more care. "It's found money," he said. "They don't care if they get $20,000 less than they would" by being patient. This rushed selling has been contributing to low prices in South Florida, he said.

Mike said renting out a house to create an immediate monthly stream of cash can be a better option than panicked selling. "I've seen people who have been very happy with renting out the house, and it's better for the neighborhood because the house is occupied," and the home-price comparisons don't get driven down in a rushed sale, he said.

Another option is a reverse mortgage, which allows someone who owns a home, or owes very little on it, to draw down the equity in the form of cash. That money could be used to pay for personal care to help the occupant stay in the home.

But Mike said that while that path may work for some homeowners, too often "people have regrets because the reverse mortgage just delays the inevitable." With home prices still falling and nursing aide costs rising, the cash from the reverse mortgage doesn't go far, and before long, the owner needs to move, he said.

Linda Fodrini-Johnson, a past president of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, said deciding what to do with a family home is not only a complicated financial decision, but an emotional one as well.

In many cases, "that's the house you grew up in," Fodrini-Johnson said. "It's a special place."

Because of the intense emotions surrounding a home, the decisions often cause conflicts among siblings. She urges families to communicate respectfully with each other to determine which options — selling, renting or getting a reverse mortgage — might make the most sense.

For Frank Christian and his sister Geneva, the matter is now settled. They have just sold the house that Frank shared with mother Ida. The proceeds are being divided up, and Ida's share will go toward her care in Geneva's home. Frank is heading off to an apartment with his family.

For Geneva, the sale is a relief. Now she won't have to continue depleting her own savings to pay for her mother's care, and the family will be able to afford an overnight aide to help as her mother's condition worsens. "We're going to need that nurse there to do things that we can't do," she said.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Let's return to our series, Family Matters, examining the way that different generations of families are increasingly moving in together, under the same roof, to get by. Today, we return to a family that had to make a difficult decision to ensure that an elderly parent keeps getting the care she needs. We'll have more on that in a moment. First, David Greene is here.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: David, would you remind us about this family?

Yeah, Steve. We're returning to the Hunter-Christian family from Maryland. We had them on air a few weeks ago. You might remember the matriarch is a woman named Ida Christian. She's 89, suffering from Alzheimer's.

YOLANDA HUNTER: Sing your favorite song.

IDA CHRISTIAN: What is my favorite song?

HUNTER: OK, I'm going to say the first few words, it's your thing, do what you want to do.

CHRISTIAN: (Singing): It's your thing, do what you want to do. I can't tell you...

INSKEEP: David, who's the younger voice we're hearing there?

GREENE: That is Ida's granddaughter, Yolanda, who cares for her during the day. As you might remember, this family really determined not to place Ida Christian in a nursing home. And so Yolanda actually quit her job as a human resources director to begin taking care of her grandmother full time.

INSKEEP: She quit her job. And as I recall we talked with an expert about that sacrifice not too long ago - the fact that many caregivers, family caregivers, end up giving up a job.

GREENE: And that's exactly right. And that's where we left Yolanda's story a few weeks back. So she's 43 years old. She's been out of work now for two years taking care of her grandma. And since our last story, she's really been working hard to try and get her career going again. She started doing some part -time work for a headhunting company.

And I caught up with her on this really chaotic day. She had all of these meetings scheduled, but the nurse who was supposed to come in and watch her grandmother for her canceled at the last minute.

HUNTER: Totally frustrating, because I've got to reschedule these people. So I've got to reschedule the nurse to come back in. Hopefully, she'll be available to come, so I can get these interviews done and get these applicants out to these clients. And if the clients like them, they can get hired, and then I can make some extra money. And for me it's like jeez, I can't keep doing this. It's crazy for me. And it's just too much.

INSKEEP: OK. So taking care of Ida while also trying to work, at least a little bit, is too much for Yolanda. So what are the options for the family now?

GREENE: I think the family's come to one of these defining moments that a lot of multigenerational families face when just something has to give. There needs to be another sacrifice. And so to get Yolanda back to work, as she wants to do, they really need another daytime caregiver. To pay for that, they need to free up some money somehow. And one option that they came up with was to sell a house that Ida used to live in. And that takes us to Richmond, Virginia.

Can you show us around the house a little bit?

FRANK CHRISTIAN: Yeah, it's possible. Yeah. Come on. Yeah.

GREENE: So the person we're hearing from right there is Frank Christian, and he is Ida's son. And really, Steve, this is a reminder of how one challenge in a multigenerational family can involve so many people in the family.

Frank lives in the house in Richmond that we're talking about. He built it with his mom, Ida. They lived together for years. I mean, it's really this beautiful six-bedroom colonial in a leafy neighborhood. There's a basketball court in the backyard, where Frank and his mom spent a lot of time.

CHRISTIAN: My mother used to come down here sometimes and shoot the ball with me too.

GREENE: No, she didn't.

CHRISTIAN: Yes, she did.

GREENE: Really?

CHRISTIAN: Yeah, when we first moved, because I was always here shooting. Like I say, you know, we're like buddies. So she would come, oh yeah, I can shoot better than you. So she'd come out and throw up.

GREENE: She show you up?

CHRISTIAN: No. No. I'm competitive. You ain't going to beat me.


GREENE: So with time, Ida's Alzheimer's got worse. And there were fewer moments like that out on the basketball court.

Those last couple of years, I mean, she really wasn't connected, because she was losing memory and talking about the past not talking about here. Just not connected. So I guess with that process, you know, that kind of put this in perspective for me.

And one thing that Frank realized, his mom needed help bathing, getting dressed. And Frank felt he couldn't really do these things for her. And so Ida moved to Maryland to live with Yolanda's family.

One thing Frank could do was sell this house in Richmond. It took two years because of a really tough housing market, and it took time for Frank to let go. But he finally sold the property just a few weeks ago for close to $400,000.

So now Frank is moving with his own family to a much smaller two-bedroom rental. But he says this feels right. He feels like he's doing his part for his mom and also for his niece, Yolanda, so she can finally get her career back.

And, Steve, there's also something special who bought the house.

CHRISTIAN: I think she's a single mom, but she suddenly was looking for a house, in particular one like this, because she suddenly had to change her lifestyle because she'd had to take care of her parents. I don't know what the circumstances are. But I thought that was kind of neat that, you know, we built this for that reason and now the people moving in are using it for that reason. So that was kind of cool.

INSKEEP: So they've raised the money for an extra caregiver, David Greene, by selling this house. But that's got to be tough to sell a house that's been in the family like that.

GREENE: It was tough. And, you know, there were some tensions. You know, Frank had to be convinced and the family kind of struggled with both the whether to sell the house and the when was the right time.

INSKEEP: And I think a lot of families have had that same struggle, David Greene. So let's get into it a little bit more deeply here. Selling a house can raise some money. It can also bring up emotional struggles. And to talk about that we called up Linda Fodrini-Johnson. She is a geriatric care manager, runs a firm that does that, and is also the past president of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers.

Welcome to the program.

LINDA FODRINI-JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about the situation that we just heard about, which has got to be very common for many people across the country. Mom needs care. Yolanda needs to get back to work and can't care for her all the time anymore. So they decide to sell the house. What do you think of that choice?

FODRINI-JOHNSON: Well, sometimes it is the only choice families have, but other times families really need to look into federal and state benefits that might have helped with the cost of care in the home if they were entitled to it.

And the other issue is the house is a place, a home is a history. It's a history of a family. It's an emotional attachment and it's really a hard decision for families to make, but they have to make it in some circumstances, like in this family's circumstance.

INSKEEP: I'm curious. As someone who advises people in this situation, would you put so much emotional weight on the value of keeping the home that you might sometimes advise people that you could hang onto that, even if it's not the absolute strictly best financial decision?

FODRINI-JOHNSON: Yeah, I can. And I actually have a checklist that I've developed. Do I have a safety net in this home? You can't stay in it if you have three stories and you have a movement disorder or you have Parkinson's, something that's going to advance, unless you remodel it. What does the home mean to you? Is it more important for you to be close to those that you're most intimate with - your children, your grandchildren. Every decision with every family is going to be slightly different.

INSKEEP: Now, I understand that you're dealing with this issue yourself.

FODRINI-JOHNSON: I am. I have a 90-year-old mom. I have three brothers. My mother is currently in assisted living. She still owns her home in San Francisco. One of her grandchildren, my nephew, lives in it. But I have legal authority, but I meet with my brothers and talk about what we should do with the home. And because there's an emotional attachment to it, that home means my father to my mother, who died 30 years ago, but it's so important to her. I have decided that the best move for us is to keep the home but to rent it.

INSKEEP: The fact that you're making these decisions about your mom's house with your three brothers seems to raise all kinds of potential for emotional conflict.

FODRINI-JOHNSON: You know, it does raise some potential, but I guess I'm a licensed therapist. I know how...


FODRINI-JOHNSON: I know how to run a family meeting. I'm keeping them in the loop of the decisions I'm making and the choices I have.

INSKEEP: You must have run into plenty of families that have all but split up over this.

FODRINI-JOHNSON: Many families that don't talk to each other after a parent dies and a house is sold, I can't tell you how many.

INSKEEP: Linda Fodrini-Johnson is former president of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers and is a geriatric care manager herself in San Francisco. Thanks.

FODRINI-JOHNSON: You're welcome.


INSKEEP: Remember, you can follow the series online. You can see photos of Ida Christian's family and hear other stories in the series at


INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.