While change is difficult for most of us, it tends to get even more difficult as we age. Yet it's often our elders who are forced to make the most dramatic changes. One example is the transition to assisted living from a home or apartment. Not only do our loved ones have to accept the fact that they must leave the home environment they are used to, they must accept the fact that aging and/or health needs necessitate this move. It's a lot to ask of older people to make this transition to assisted living. How can adult children, often the people who pushed the move in the first place, help their parents ease into a strange new environment?
Tips for making assisted living feel like home
- Start by understanding that while your parent or parents move to assisted living may seem very positive to you since you see the fresh start, the handy, nutritious meals and the social activities as positive motivations, this move represents significant loss for your parents. Even if they are leaving an older, deteriorating home for a sparkling new assisted living facility, they are leaving behind a good deal of their past.
- Ask them what personal belongings they feel strongly about. Offer to store holiday decorations, family heirlooms and even seasonal clothing in your home if that helps them make decisions. Their space will likely be limited, so letting them know that you'll help them keep things they don't use on a daily basis should ease some of their grief over having to part with much of their tangible history. When my mom was in a care environment, we used to make a little ritual of changing out seasonal clothing. I always added a few new items during this changeover, so she enjoyed the process.
- Make a priority of finding shelving or a cabinet for them to keep photo albums and other life treasures safe and accessible in their new home.
- If they had favorite chairs for television watching or reading, try to find room for those chairs in their new home. If there is room for a dresser, let them bring theirs from home. If they had a grandfather clock that had been in the family for years, find a place for that. As many mementos from home that they can bring with them will help ease the transition.
- Make sure that they have pillows, bedspread and even curtains, if possible, from their current home unless they express the idea that they want to buy something new. Even if they do want new things, save the old. You never know when they will decide they liked their old bedspread better and want it back.
- Books, awards, favorite pictures for the walls, hand-made throw pillows and/or quilts – these are generally items that can be transferred to the new environment, so save them if you can. If there is too much for their new home, try to store some items at your home. Then, if they ask later you can say, "I have that at home, should I bring it?"
- On the other hand, some elders want a fresh start: a new couch, a flat screen TV, a comfy recliner, etc. Although this isn't the norm, if your mom or dad wants to buy new items, go with it. It's their home. They should have control of how to decorate it.
- Help them be a host or hostess. My uncle was particular about having a comfortable chair for his visitors. My mom was determined to be a good hostess and offer food or drinks. I knew these things about my loved ones, so I did what I could to provide what they needed to host friends in their care environment. Even my dad, deep in his dementia, needed his candy basket full so he had something to offer guests. Being able to offer comfort and/or a treat to a visitor helps our elders retain more of their own dignity.
- Don't force your loved ones to dive right into the assisted living social scene. A good facility will generally have a "get to know you" routine, however your elders may need more time than average to adjust before they begin to socialize. Talk with the staff about your elders' unique personalities and brainstorm with them about how to start getting them integrated into the community.
- Speaking of home, refer to their new environment as their home. Assisted living facilities and even nursing home rooms are home to the people who live there. Your aim is to help them feel at home, so your language and attitude will make a difference.
Expect your elders to grieve their losses so that you aren't disappointed when they complain about the facility. Don't expect gratitude. For them, this move can be compared to a kind of death, so treat them with respect and don't rush them. If they seem overly depressed once they have had a few weeks in their new setting, talk with their doctor about possible depression. Likely, if you give them time to adjust and you work with the staff at the facility, you'll find that they will fit in well and may grow to love the safety, warmth and friendship a good assisted living facility offers.