Avoiding Decisions Part 2: Unpacking Your Baggage

Terry Lieb Challenging Yourself, Facing Fear 5 Comments

This post is in response to a challenge put forth by one of my regular “bouncers” (the people I “bounce” my rough drafts off for their honest, critical and constructive feedback) after reading the draft of my last post on avoiding decisions.

He asked me why I hadn’t written about the ongoing decision-making struggle I’ve been dealing with for years (and continue to wrestle with): the decision about how to live out the next stage of life, which includes if and when to leave our beloved home of 45 years with all the memories and connections we’ve built over the decades.

There were probably several reasons why I unconsciously didn’t include my own struggle to make a major life decision in my October post. One major hesitancy was that I felt a post on elder transitions would primarily focus on those facing similar life decisions and be of no interest to my growing group of younger followers.

As I explored this concern with both young and middle-aged adults, I quickly realized my assessment wasn’t accurate. They were often just as concerned, if not in many cases, more concerned than my older readers! Comments often fell along the lines of, “my parents aren’t talking about this and I expect aren’t making any plans. This will end up falling in the laps of myself and my siblings.”

One younger daughter who self-labeled herself as “the caretaker” in the family system said with mixed emotions, “I get the feeling everyone assumes my husband and I will be the primary support for our aging parents and eventually take them into our home because we live closest to them. However, we have a full plate already with four children, one of which is differently abled, as well as several health concerns of our own.”

In talking with people young and not-so-young, a recurring theme that kept cropping up was how many of us choose—consciously or unconsciously—to avoid this major life decision of how, when and where we will we live out what many refer to as the last major phase of our life journey!

As someone with a passion for exploring people’s understanding of God and how it impacts their life journey (where this blog gets its name!), it was particularly interesting to me to view how folks approached these decisions through the lens of God image. It appeared to me that those who in some way experienced God’s presence—rather than answers—seemed to experience a much higher level of peace in the midst of their struggles.

Sometimes those with a strong belief that God has a predetermined plan for our lives used this as justification for not making plans or decisions about their later years, feeling that whatever happened must be God’s will for them and they shouldn’t “interfere.” My own God image leads me in another way. When I seek God’s will regarding a major decision, I find that the discernment and decision-making process requires more attention and effort, not less!

It’s easy to see why people often avoid this difficult topic. There are a myriad of factors that come into play—and double that if a couple has to make the choice together! Just for starters are the availability and attitude of family, health of one or both if a couple, available support resources, including financial resources, and a major one is attitude and overall approach to life! For instance, one person might see their twilight years as a chance to withdraw from activity and engage in more quiet and contemplation, while another might want to get even more involved now that they have less competing responsibilities.

There is no “one size fits all” and if people’s opinions differ, this can be the source of major family conflict, whether it be between spouses, parents and adult children, siblings or, as I have often seen, between adult children and their spouses! The examples some folks shared of how it divided and splintered families and relationships were truly overwhelming. It’s no wonder people want to avoid this!

However, when it came time for me to sit down and write this post, I discovered that even beyond all those issues I’ve already raised, there was something else that was getting in the way of me writing about (and making!) these very important decisions. I realized I was carrying around a lot of emotional baggage around these issues that I had to work through before I could even think about looking at the options.

First and foremost, I recognized it was important to explore how this stage of life journey was handled by and often for both my parents and grandparents. That “for” rather than “by” is a critical difference for me. By and large it seemed there was no choice at all simply based on circumstances. In fact, not one of my predecessors provided me with an example of how to make conscious decisions about where and how they wanted to live out their final years.

Clockwise from upper left: Terry and Grammy Lieb, Terry and his mother, Terry and his father (the only time he caught a bigger fish than his Pop’s!), Pappy.

My mother’s parents, Pappy and Nanny, lived with us primarily for financial survival; money was scarce! My earliest memories of Pappy are in an old hospital bed in our “middle” room.  He had a severe respiratory illness that left him grasping for breath often throughout the day. I never remember seeing him out of that bed. When his breathing bouts hit him, he would ring an old desktop school bell and the closest person had to rush to his side and fan him until he gradually regained his breath! Pappy stopped breathing while I was fanning him early one morning and he died before help could arrive. I was five at the time! I felt responsible and guilty—then angry!

Nanny had Parkinson’s disease with limited treatment options. The shaking increased to the point that she struggled with daily activities such as feeding herself. We were constantly in fear of her falling, which seemed to happen fairly often. Fear was now a part of my emotional baggage!

Meanwhile, on my dad’s side, my grandfather died when I was a baby so I never really knew  him. Grammy Lieb lived by herself “a stone’s throw” away. As her health declined, she offered my father the family home if he promised to care for her. We only ever lived in rentals and there was plenty of room for our family (I wouldn’t have to share a bedroom with Nanny—who snored like a jackhammer!—anymore!), so Pop took Grammy up on the offer.

Within a few years Grammy’s diabetes was out of control. She got a severe infection in her foot which wouldn’t heal which led to amputation of her leg. In hindsight Grammy slid into a major depression, though it was never diagnosed or treated. I suddenly had a totally different grandmother, totally bedridden and little, if any, interest in living.

At this point, my mother was the primary care provider for both grandmothers, and her own health declined significantly at least partially as a result of those overwhelming demands.

Grammy died in our home several years later and Nanny’s Parkinson’s progressed to the point where my mother could no longer care for her. While I was away at college my parents made a difficult decision to place her in an “old folks’ home.” She died shortly thereafter. There was plenty more guilt to go around!

My mother’s increasing health issues eventually left her bedridden with my dad scrambling to get neighbors to help care for her while he was at work. We didn’t have the resources or access to bring any help into our home for my mother. Mom died one summer while I was working in the traveling circus. Yet another dose of guilt and anger!

Dad eventually sold the homestead and eventually bought an old trailer not far from the home Rita and I built near Topton. He managed to etch out a life between that little trailer and our home until about ninety years old. His overall health then went downhill rapidly and when he could no longer safely drive his huge secondhand Cadillac, we had to make some major decisions.

I had to deal with the age-old expectation that the adult child is expected to take the aging parent into their home regardless of resources or more importantly what was the healthiest decision for everyone involved. Pop didn’t choose to explore or even consider any options so he could decide this part of his life journey, consequently decisions would have to be made for him!

Since both Rita and I were working, we couldn’t provide the 24-hour care he needed so we had to make the decision as to where Pop would live out the rest of his life. We managed to get him admitted to a nursing facility near our home. Pop lived there for several years and I was able to visit him several days a week since my office was on the same campus.

Although in many ways it was a fortunate setup, it wasn’t what Pop planned or wanted; actually, he didn’t make any plans and refused to discuss it! He was quite unhappy and insisted he wanted to return to his trailer! When he finally accepted the fact that he wasn’t able to care for himself (which was crystal clear to everyone else!) he settled into a despondent, depressed state.

Eventually he recovered somewhat and his powerful sense of humor began to show up on occasion (providing the staff and myself with a huge repertoire of Pop stories until he died at ninety-five!); however, he never did accept that decision I had to make for him because he refused to discuss it.

With this history of no choices and unhappy outcomes, it’s not surprising facing later life decisions is emotionally loaded for me. I have no positive models to build on and a lot of unprocessed fear, guilt, and even anger to work through!

Facing and unpacking family experiences and expectations can be very difficult and challenging but for me it was absolutely critical to sort through all of these experiences and residual feelings. When I looked at my past head on, I was able to realize that I don’t need to live my parents’ and grandparents’ lives. I have resources and options they didn’t and can make decisions they couldn’t or wouldn’t.

I don’t want to infer that I have completely resolved all of my issues around this, but I now feel my past history is less likely to contaminate our decision making. Not only that, but the working-though process also has freed me of emotional baggage I didn’t even realize I was carrying! I was forced into dealing with things I wouldn’t have otherwise, which is a good thing. And, of course, being convinced of God’s presence though this challenging process makes all the difference for me.

After having gone through this “pre-decision” work and unloaded as much baggage as I can, I am hopefully on somewhat firmer ground as Rita and I continue to explore options and make decisions on this next exciting stage of life—the topic of the next and final installment in this series of posts. I hope you’ll join me for the rest of the journey!



  • Have you thought about how you would like to spend your own later years? If you are already in your “twilight” years, how consciously did you choose the shape of the life you are leading?
  • Do you know the wishes of your family members for their final stage of life, and do they know yours? If not, why not? If so, how did those discussions go?
  • Do you know anyone who is currently facing—or refusing to face!—this transition? Is there anything you could do to support them in their struggle?
  • What emotional baggage are you carrying regarding the last stage of life? What models for post-middle age were you given in your family of origin? What parts would you like to emulate? What parts would you not?
  • In other life decisions, have you ever been unconsciously influenced by emotional baggage from your past, including causing you to avoid the decision altogether? What was the result? Is there emotional baggage you need to work through to help make better life choices?
  • Do you think God has a specific plan for your life? How does your belief (either way) affect your decision-making process?
  • Some cultures see life after middle age as a time for personal reflection and spiritual exploration. What do you think the purpose and opportunities of the final stage of life are?


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Faith D'Urbano
Faith D'Urbano
November 4, 2023 2:05 pm

I’ve forwarded “Avoiding Decisions Part 2: Unpacking Your Baggage” to five people … and counting. With help, I aim to post your piece on Facebook.
Thank you for your writing – for absolute heart- talking to / with us, Terry!
So valuable!

Anthony Bifulco
Anthony Bifulco
November 4, 2023 3:04 pm

Hit the nail on the head. See this sort of thing all the time here in The Villages. Will pass it on.

James Buskirk (Jim)
James Buskirk (Jim)
November 4, 2023 3:52 pm

Can’t thank you enough for revisiting this issue! We/I are still avoiding making this decision although we are scheduled to visit 2 senior living facilities this month. On another note, I can’t believe how similar our growing-up life experiences are. So many of the issues you mention are mine too. They are painful and cause panic and procrastination. A long time ago we made the decision that we didn’t want to be a burden to our children in our old age. Our problem at this juncture is giving up what we’ve got even though our ability to maintain it is… Read more »

November 4, 2023 7:22 pm

Hi Terry, thanks for this post! My husband, Klaus and I recently updated our Will and created a Living Health Directive as well. We have told our oldest child where out “Death Folder” is and told her about our wishes when we are too fragile to care for ourselves. This was as decision we were postponing for years, but finally did it this summer! Kathy

David Kuntz
David Kuntz
November 12, 2023 9:28 am

I have a little different perspective sometimes and its always changing. I think maybe you don’t fully appreciate the significant growth in this area you have had in such a short amount of time. You have gone from generational avoidance of these difficult, challenging, fear filled decisions and feelings to wrestling with, talking about and amazingly actively using them to help others. The perfect solution you are digging for is the imperfect and challenging one. The question I have is are you really leaving all these things behind? This baggage, the home, the memories. I don’t know, Its sounds like… Read more »