Making the transition to an assisted living facility or nursing home can be emotionally overwhelming – and it usually doesn't happen overnight. A typical adjustment period is anywhere from two to four weeks, according to Maria Plaskin, director of sales at HarborChase Assisted Living in Naples, Florida – but it really depends on the individual. "Adjustment varies widely by the person. Some residents adjust very quickly, while others take longer," Plaskin explains.
Here are some tips on how families can support their loved ones during a stressful, emotion and difficult time:
Help them research ahead of time
When considering options, don't just take a quick tour. Visit several facilities, stay awhile and observe. If your parent has a good feeling about a particular place, go back a few times, at different times of the day, checking out daily life, the staff, accommodations, activities and food. A caring staff (which is an important component of a happy life in senior living) will be happy to accommodate multiple visits. When an elder has spent a significant amount of time at the senior living community before moving in, they are already familiar with the setting and routine, and will feel more comfortable.
Let them decide
If your parent is of sound mind, let them have a say – preferably the final decision – on where they will live. Just like when you buy a home or rent an apartment, some places just feel more like home than others. This is your parent's new home; they should select it. Having the independence to make the decision empowers the elder and helps lessen feelings of resentment and loss.
Relinquish some control
If your parent is cognitively able, let them make the decisions about what to take, and what to donate to charity. Even if mom is supposed to be making decisions, but instead keeps getting sidetracked by old memories as she pages through photo albums, be patient. Allow her time to close those chapters of her life. The decision-making process will take longer, but it will mean the world to your parent. Refrain from taking control of the actual moving process. Even though you and your family could get it done in half the time without your parent's "help," it lets the elder remain in control of their life – for them, another declaration of their independence.
Don't dismiss their feelings
Even when an elder is willing to move into senior living, they will likely still have feelings of grief and loss. Don't minimize these feeling or focus too excessively on the positives. Rather, respect these feelings, allow time to adjust and be sympathetic.
Make it feel like home
Help personalize their new living space. Choose meaningful possessions – dad's grandfather clock that he earned after 50 years working for the same company; mom's photo albums that she's carefully assembled by hand, a lifetime of memories, or dad's favorite recliner, his chair for TV-watching..
Get to know the staff in advance
Regardless of how nice a facility may look, it's the staff that you or your loved one will be interacting with on a daily basis. In many facilities, staff members will have individual meetings with the new resident to explain their role and what that means to the resident. In some facilities, new resident orientations are held to help the resident get acquainted with their new home.
Make regular contact, but don't overdo it
Maintain regular contact to reassure your loved one that they are loved and still cared for. A simple call or visit can make all the difference during a difficult transition. But don't get overly involved. Give your parents space to explore the neighborhood on their own and make new friends.
Plan something to do during first visits
To make initial visits more comfortable, plan an activity. Let your parent show you around. Have lunch. Or, if your parent would be more satisfied with some quiet one-on-one time, bring a movie you can watch together. If you think it will help calm any anxiety when its time to go, ask the staff ahead of time to divert your loved one to an activity such as a meal while you leave.
If it still feels "off," seek help
Expect some emotional days, some agitation, confusion, even anger. But if your parent's personality remains extremely uncharacteristic for an extended period of more than a few months, talk to the staff. Many communities have staff with backgrounds in social work, clergy, etc. to help residents address emotional and adjustment issues.
Your parent's adjustment period is one of those times when caregiver guilt is likely to take over. Mom or dad is unsettled, not used to his or her new life yet…maybe has even mentioned wanting to move back home. Don't beat yourself up. Remember, you did what had to be done. Even if it is difficult in the beginning, you are doing what is in their best interest overall. Difficult life transitions are normal, but almost always temporary. Your loved one needs to grieve. Expecting instant happiness is unrealistic.