Moving can be a notorious source of stress, regardless of an individual's age or life situation. Disrupted routines, the challenge of finding a new home, and the hassle of packing and unpacking all of one's personal belongings are just a few of the factors that contribute to the stress-inducing power of a major move.

For aging adults who are vacating the home they've lived in for decades to take up residence in an independent living community, these stressors can be extreme, and are often compounded by feelings of anger and sadness due to a perceived loss of freedom and vitality. "They feel as though they are giving up their independence," says Regina Wallace, director of the independent senior apartments and assisted living program for the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, a geriatric service organization based in Riverdale, New York. "They feel like they're going to ‘an old folks' home.'"

Promoting elder independence

But a move to independent living is not the doom-filled ordeal that many older adults believe it to be, argues Wallace. These communities are often places of enhanced independence for residents, prolonging an elder's ability to remain self-sufficient by providing assistance with housing maintenance, transportation and socialization opportunities.

"It's really a privilege," says Wallace. "The senior is gaining more choices for activities and outings that they may not otherwise have access to." She poses a hypothetical example of an elder living on their own who gets snowed into their house during a winter storm because they can't shovel their steps and driveway. Independent living communities in areas where this kind of weather is common provide shoveling and plowing services to ensure residents' safety and enable them to venture beyond their apartment, despite the ice and snow. If bad weather does keep residents cooped up, a community can plan extra indoor activities to keep them active and occupied.

There is a distinct difference between independent living and assisted living communites, especially when it comes to how self-sufficient the residents are. Unlike assisted living facilities and nursing homes, independent living communities don't cater to elders who need medical care or round-the-clock supervision, so the men and women living there are still capable of maintaining a relatively active lifestyle.

Woes eased by a warm welcome

Despite the benefits of independent living, there's no denying that the transition from a family home to a senior housing community can be challenging for an aging adult.

Outgoing adults adapt more easily to the transition, according to Wallace. Elders who are naturally shy, on the other hand, can easily become overwhelmed by the prospect of interacting with an entirely new group of people. These individuals are often reluctant to leave the sanctuary of their new dwelling, fearing the interpersonal interactions that research has shown to be vital to maintaining mental and emotional well-being in seniors.

The right approach by the community can coax an introverted elder out of their shell. "Sometimes people move in and act the same way they always have—not getting to know the other residents or going to activities," says Wallace. "That's when it's our job to pull them out a bit, to help them feel more comfortable participating."

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At the Hebrew Home's independent living community, new residents are assigned special ambassadors—men and women who've lived in the community for a while—to help them get acquainted with the rest of the group. These ambassadors make sure a newcomer feels welcome. And, just like freshman college students, recent move-ins also attend an orientation session where they learn about the ins and outs of their new community.

How to help an elder adjust

Family members can help ease the transition to independent living for an elderly loved one, especially during the first few days after their move-in. Here are a few tips for family caregivers to keep in mind:

  • Acknowledge your loved one's loss: Realize what your loved one has lost by moving out of a home they've lived in for decades. Anticipate their grief—which will likely occur, regardless of whether or not the move was their idea—and help them cope in any way you can.
  • Prepare for the move: Avoid unnecessary stress by packing well in advance of the move. Take the time necessary to help your loved one carefully go through their possessions and decide which items to take, which to give away and which to discard. Make sure that any questions you or your loved one have regarding the move-in process and what a new resident can expect over the first few days are answered by the community ahead of time.
  • Help them get settled: Wallace also encourages relatives to assist with the unpacking and decorating of an elderly loved one's new home. "There's a certain level of excitement and anticipation that accompany setting up a new place," she says. "Having family members involved in this process often makes new residents more comfortable and at-ease." She also suggests sharing a meal together in the community dining area.
  • Let them go: Knowing when to step back and let a loved one get on with their new life in independent living can be tricky—there's no one sign that will tell you it's time to let them go. This is why selecting the right community is essential. After the initial move-in period, it will fall on the men and women in your loved one's new neighborhood to step up and help. While it's certainly important for pre-existing friends and family to make an effort to visit an elder in independent living, a resident's day-to-day socialization opportunities should stem from their peers in the community. Connecting early on with other elders in the community is critical for newcomers, according to Wallace, who says, "Our philosophy is that you're never too old to make a new friend."