Moving is 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 factors that contribute to the overwhelming amount of work that goes into a major move.
For older adults who are vacating their long-time homes to take up residence in independent living (IL) communities, these normal stressors 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,” explains 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.’ ”
While it’s common to feel nostalgic and a sense of loss when moving from a cherished home, there’s far more powerful emotions at play for older adults who are moving to senior living. Leaving their home in the community is a symbolic end to the life they worked for years to create. Things will certainly be different in independent living, but it’s important for a senior’s family members and close friends to ease this transition by reminding them that they still have their independence and there are many new opportunities and friendships awaiting them at their new home if they are open to these things.
Promoting a Senior’s Independence
The move to independent living can seem like a slippery slope for seniors. Logically, the next steps are assisted living and possibly even a nursing home. Acknowledging and accepting this reality is challenging, but the emphasis should be placed on the present rather than the hypothetical future.
A move to independent living is not the tragic ordeal that many older adults believe it to be, argues Wallace. Unlike assisted living facilities and nursing homes, IL communities don’t accept seniors who need skilled nursing care or assistance with activities of daily living. The men and women in independent living settings are still capable of maintaining a relatively active and autonomous lifestyle.
These communities are settings that offer enhanced independence for residents. The services available at IL are meant to support an elder’s ability to remain self-sufficient and take mundane responsibilities like home maintenance, transportation, meal preparation and housework off their plates. Ideally, the additional free time these services create can be used to explore community amenities, pursue social opportunities and focus on enjoying a happy and healthy retirement.
“Seniors in IL gain choices for activities and outings that they may not otherwise have had access to,” Wallace notes. For example, an elder who lives on their own in a northern climate might get snowed into their house during winter storms because they can’t shovel their steps and driveway. Independent living communities in areas where this kind of weather is common handle all property maintenance and provide shoveling and plowing services to ensure residents’ safety so they can 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. IL communities tackle everyday challenges that seniors may encounter and provide services and supports, allowing residents to continue enjoying engaging, independent lives.
Warm Welcomes from Staff and Residents
Despite the benefits and amenities that come with independent living, there’s no denying that the transition from a family home to senior housing can be challenging for an aging adult. Outgoing seniors usually adapt more easily to the transition, according to Wallace. Elders who are naturally shy, on the other hand, can 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 help coax an introverted elder out of their shell. “Sometimes people move in and act the same way they always have—not getting to know their neighbors or engaging in activities outside of their home,” says Wallace. “That’s when it’s our job to step up and go the extra mile to help them feel more comfortable participating.”
Each IL community operates a little bit differently, so ask the staff how they ensure new residents feel welcome and help them overcome any discomfort. At the Hebrew Home’s independent living community, new residents are partnered with special ambassadors—residents who have lived in the community for a while—to help them get acquainted with their new surroundings and peers. These ambassadors make sure every newcomer feels welcome. And, just like freshman college students who are new on campus, recent move-ins also attend an orientation session where they learn the ins and outs of their new community.
How to Help a Senior Adjust to Independent Living
While much of the success of this transition lies with the seniors themselves, there are things that family members can do to ease the adjustment before, during and after the big move. Here are a few tips for family caregivers to keep in mind:
- Acknowledge your loved one’s loss. Realize what your loved one has left behind by moving out of a home they’ve lived in for many years. It may seem silly to you, but they will likely grieve their long-time home and the memories and comfort they enjoyed there, regardless of whether the move was their idea. Help them cope in any way you can. Bring a few favorite decorations or pieces of furniture to their new IL apartment. Take pictures throughout the home before packing everything up so that they can look at them and reminisce later. Do whatever helps them find peace in parting ways with their home and neighborhood.
- Be prepared for the move. Avoid unnecessary stress by packing well in advance of the move-out date so you’re not rushing through this delicate process. Some older adults have been collecting cherished items for decades, so set aside the time necessary to help your loved one 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-out process and move-in process have been answered ahead of time.
- Help them get settled in their new home. Wallace 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 accompanies setting up a new place,” she says. “Having family members involved in this process often makes new residents feel more comfortable and at ease.” Sometimes working together to make the new apartment feel homey and reflect the senior’s personality can help them focus on the positive things that lie ahead rather than what they’ve left behind. Wallace also suggests eating together in the community dining area so that a loved one can enjoy their first meal in IL with a familiar face.
- 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 figure things out on their own. This is why selecting the right community is essential. After the initial move-in period, it will fall on the residents and staff in your loved one’s new neighborhood to help them feel welcome. Your loved one must also try to meet them halfway and step outside their comfort zone as well. While it’s certainly important for friends and family to visit an elder in independent living, the bulk of a resident’s day-to-day social interactions should be with their peers. According to Wallace, connecting early on with other elders in the community is critical for newcomers. Gently encourage your loved one to get involved in activities and outings that interest them so they can begin making friends and developing new routines.