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When Mom Just Has to Move

Helping the older adult in your life with one of life’s toughest transitions.

HOME.  Few words are more potent, loaded with context, meaning and experiences. When people define home, the physical structure usually comes far down the list, after security, safety, privacy, warmth, families, memories and comfort, according to a Kansas State University report.

For older adults, home may represent stability, family and friends, a fixed routine, or a long-time identity. Indeed, many women age 65-plus traditionally were full-time homemakers, and “their identities are often tied to their families, homes and possessions,” according to an article in the 2004 issue of The Journal of Aging Studies. Because of this, home can be hard to leave behind. Older adults age 65-plus move at a rate of 4.1 percent a year, the article adds. If that older adult does move, it’s usually in the first year of widowhood. Probability goes down from there.

That partly explains why helping a loved one make that transition can be such a formidable task. Many aging parents decide to move closer to family. But what if that isn’t your case? What if your loved one shows signs of fall or health risks, or cognition changes, and is no longer safe at home? How do you help?

Moving is overwhelming, especially for older adults, but you needn’t start this alone. A first step: Call your local Area Agency on Aging
referral line. Describe your situation. These folks listen and can help you find resources.

Likewise, professional Geriatric Care Managers (GCM) can coordinate the move and movers, from start to finish. They can help find a new residence, assist with the logistics, and most of all keep an advocating ear open to what your loved one wants and feels. GCMs can lend a compassionate, objective voice to the discussion, and can navigate not only the seemingly piecemeal senior-services system, but sibling and family relationships as well. Some even offer geriatric counseling.

The National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers offers a few helpful hints for caregivers considering a move:

  • Use “I” messages. Say that you are concerned for her safety, not that she “should” hire someone or move.
  • Start care “in spoonfuls instead of buckets” – two hours, a few times a week. Spend more time as the relationship develops.
  • Allow your parent to tour a few retirement communities for the “future.” No pressure. This is about exposure to options.

A few other points, for the run-up to and the day of the move, might help. From Jennifer Prell, owner of Cary, Illinois-based Paxem Inc., a senior-relocation company:

  • With your loved one, list the tasks and build a timeline that includes each one.
  • Include her in the process as much as possible. If you begin to sort through years of belongings and she grows agitated or emotional, stop and redirect. Find another job to do.
  • Start early in the day and stop for breaks.
  • See things from her view. Stay calm if she moves slowly, or makes poor or no decisions.
  • Help list what goes to the new home, and what is optional. Use sticky notes on each item. Ask her to number each by order of importance.
  • Consider hiring a professional senior-move manager. That person does the planning and work, while you and your loved one can reminisce and sort.

Finally, remember to use every available resource in the new home. Spectrum Retirement Communities has a contingent of Directors of Fun, who thoroughly understand what the move means to new residents.

“We always tell families it takes a couple of weeks to adjust to moving from home to a community residence,” says Eric Lindley, Director of Fun at Spectrum Retirement Communities.

Once, Lindley found that a new resident missed having toaster waffles in the morning. Lindley purchased waffles, and other residents served them up. Appreciating the gesture, that new resident began to help other newcomers adjust.Lindley found that a new resident missed having toaster waffles in the morning. Lindley purchased waffles, and other residents served them up. Appreciating the gesture, that new resident began to help other newcomers adjust.

Likewise, Michele Scott, Director of Fun at Spectrum’s Palos Verdes location in Peoria, Arizona, has a coffee bar in the lobby. New residents can get a cup of coffee and choose to join others to discuss any given topic. Alternately, an upstairs greenhouse attracts residents for its serenity. Debi Bruni, Coordinator of Fun at Palos Verdes, hosts several activities designed to engage and integrate residents, such as lunch and a movie in town and regular bingo events.

Lindley points to outdated assumptions of retirement communities as an adjustment issue. At one time, housing choices were few and most fell under the umbrella of “nursing home.”  Too often, older adults don’t realize times have changed, bringing more choices, he says. He distinguishes between independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing. “I wish people knew more about the differences,” he says.

These days, “It’s not about restrictions and housing people,” he says. “We want to help people live independently so they can have a full and fulfilling life.”