Preparing the House for a Prolonged Absence

By Robert F. Bornstein, PhD and Mary A. Languirand, PhD

With winter nigh upon us, it's a good time to address this common aging in place issue (even those of us who are generally healthy may need out-of-home care at one time or another). So it's a common concern for older adults.

The bottom line: Whether occupied or empty, houses need care. The grass grows, the leaves fall, time and weather take their toll. When a house is unoccupied, rodents and other critters (sometimes of the human variety) find their way in, and rearrange things to fit their own needs. You'll definitely need to prepare the house if you'll be away for any length of time, but the way you prepare it will depend upon whether or not someone will remain in the home during your absence.

If the house will be unoccupied

  • If a short-term absence is anticipated, prepare the house as if you were going on an extended vacation. Put newspaper delivery and trash pickup services on hold. Arrange to have mail forwarded or held at the post office. Have voice mail forwarded, or check it periodically. Advise "automatic delivery" fuel oil providers that the house will be shut down for a while; they'll reduce deliveries accordingly. Provide a phone number providers can call if there's an emergency.
  • Stopping services altogether might sound attractive, but think before you act: The costs of re-establishing services can sometimes be prohibitive. Only terminate services if the amount of money you save exceeds the start-up costs you'll pay later on. And keep in mind that some things can't be re-established the exact same way once they're discontinued. For example, if you stop phone service there's no guarantee you'll get the old number back when you start the service up again (an important consideration for someone who has had the same phone number for many years).
  • Shutting down a house completely is rarely a good idea. Water or drainage pipes can freeze in winter, resulting in costly repairs. A house without air conditioning or dehumidification may develop mold and insect problems in warm weather. Your best bet is to keep heat and air conditioning going at minimal levels-but do keep them going. If you're unsure how to proceed, ask service representatives from various utilities for advice, or consult a local realtor.
  • If the house doesn't have an alarm system, this might be the time to have one installed. Because it's considered a home improvement, an alarm system is an acceptable expense under current Medicaid disbursement rules. If you can't afford an alarm, ask a trusted neighbor to check the place regularly-or do it yourself, if you live nearby. Arrange to have the grass cut and the sidewalk shoveled so the house looks occupied, and put some lights, plus a TV or radio, on a variable-schedule timer.
  • Go through the cupboards, and get rid of perishable foods. Check garages and basement storage areas for flammable materials, and store them appropriately, or discard them. Drain the gas tanks of snowblowers, lawnmowers, and other equipment that will remain idle for an extended period. If a car must be stored, check with your mechanic regarding how best to do this.

If someone will remain in the home

  • This makes your task easier, but certain things still must be done. If the remaining occupant has lived in the home but never helped maintain it, she will have to learn fast. Most important, the occupant must learn basic emergency procedures-what to do if the power goes out, how to turn off the water main in the event of a leak, where to find the electrical circuit box. Go through the house with her, taking notes and making "what to do" lists that can be accessed easily in an emergency. A "who to call" list with names and phone numbers should also be available to the occupant. Keep one copy of this list in the house, give another to a trusted neighbor, and make sure you have a copy as well.
  • Some tasks look easy until you try to do them, so insist that the person try now, not later. Together, the two of you can make a "practice run," checking unfamiliar equipment to see what will need to be tuned up or replaced, and what tasks might have to be delegated to others. If the occupant can't operate the old push mower but can run a riding mower with ease, consider buying one. If the occupant can't push the snowblower around the driveway, arrange to have a plowing service clear the path.
  • In addition to the physical challenges, there are some psychological aspects of living alone that people don't always anticipate. Handling things alone is tougher than many people realize-especially if they haven't lived alone before. The lone occupant must now structure his or her own day, and schedule things (like meals) that were once scheduled for them. The very idea of "aloneness" can be frightening, and oftentimes people develop a "why bother?" attitude with respect to things like shopping or cooking (or bathing or shaving).When you or someone close to you needs out-of-home care, it's easy to forget about the partner or sibling they left behind, but don't. This person needs your support as well, but given the current situation, he or she might not be comfortable asking for it. Don't wait to be asked: Offer instead.

Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, which is available at, or may be purchased directly from HarperCollins Publishers.

Our latest book is entitled How to Age in Place: Planning for a Happy, Independent, and Financially Secure Retirement, published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.