A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

10 Ways to Help Elderly Parents Transition to Assisted Living

When a parent enters an assisted living facility, it isn't always the happiest of occasions. But there are several ways to help your parent (and you) make the transition a lot smoother!

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Have the talk

Broaching the subject of assisted living probably won’t be an easy conversation to have with your parent, but these golden rules of conversation will really help. Timing is another factor. “When possible, I recommend adult children talk with their parents before a need arises for assisted living,” says Karen Whitehead, LMSW who has a private practice in Atlanta and has been through the transition process with her own mother. Whitehead recommends using “I messages” to defuse defensive reactions. “Rather than saying, ‘You can’t take care of the house anymore and you’re going to break a hip if you keep falling, say, ‘I’m concerned about your recent falls and all of the upkeep in the house,'” says Whitehead.

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Show empathy

The prospect of moving to an assisted living facility is a difficult scenario to imagine for your parent. Finely tuned empathy skills are necessary to truly understand this life changing event. “Your parent has been living independently, taking care of others, raising a family, and taking care of a home for their entire lives,” says Julie L. Futrell, a clinical psychologist who specializes in geriatric care and the regional clinical director of Northern California for CHE Senior Psychological Services. “The experience of moving to an assisted living facility is often of feeling as though one is losing their independence and becoming reliant on another. Many elderly people feel distraught at the idea of becoming a “burden” for another, and many feel great shame and an accompanying loss of dignity,” notes Futrell. Reassure your parent how valuable they are to your family. Talk about the things that will stay the same. Maybe it’s the weekly card game she enjoys with the grandkids, the book club she has with friends or the cozy mittens she makes for family members at Christmas. These can all still be a part of her life in an assisted living setting.

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Keep them involved

As much as possible, involve your parent in the research and tours of assisted living facilities. They may feel discouraged and disengage themselves from the process so you’ll have to pull them back in by discussing amenities, location, and apartment size. With some issues you may have to take the lead—like finances. “When my mom and I were looking after a fall made it difficult for her to live alone, putting all the costs on paper really helped,” says Whitehead. “My mom could see that having someone come into her home regularly to help her was going to be more expensive in the long run and meant that she’d never be alone.  In her assisted living, she has her own apartment and help when she needs it.” In end Whitehead’s mom decided that she would actually have more independence than if she had someone coming into stay with her.

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Help with downsizing

Moving is stressful enough but when your parent also has to store or part with cherished items it adds an emotional element to the mix. Make it easier on everyone with these downsizing tips. Plan the downsizing process far in advance of the move if possible. Your parent needs plenty of time to decide what things can go or be stored and what things will be moved with them. “Allow your parent the time to process this, reminiscing about things, and then encouraging them to look forward to this next adventure in life,” recommends Futrell. “Many elderly patients find newfound freedom once they settle into an assisted living facility!”

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Andrey Popov/Shutterstock

Moving day!

It’s likely you’ll have the help of friends or movers on moving day. Your parent might not be involved in the physical side of moving, but it’s essential to involve them in getting settled in their new home. Understand that any life-changing event or big move can leave your parent a little disoriented and sad initially,” notes Futrell. “Make sure to help your parent move, set up their new apartment/room, review all of the facility’s activities with them, and remind them you are only a phone call away. This will help ease the disorientation caused by new surroundings and new people.” says Futrell.

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Make it a home

Decorating can be a fun way to soothe the transition into assisted living. “Encourage them to make the decisions about where things should be placed and hung,” says Futrell. If you’re not a pro, read this for DIY picture-hanging tips. Help her decorate her front door or patio area to make it feel like home. “Listen attentively and keep them involved,” recommends Futrell. It’s all about their comfort level and style and not whether you like her furniture arrangement or choice of pictures to hang on the wall.

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Expect an adjustment period

Adjusting to assisted living could be exciting, terrifying, or a little of both. Check in with the resident activities staff and let them know what kinds of activities your parent enjoys doing. It can feel isolating and lonely for your parent the first weeks, if they don’t actively seek socializing. To head off trouble, you can help your parent avoid feeling lonely with these tips. Ask if the facility has a resident who can mentor your parent and show them around, sit with them at dinner or take a class together. Whitehead recalls when her mother was a new resident and another resident invited her to sit are her table during a meal. “Developing one friendship is often all it takes to begin to feel ‘at home,'” says Whitehead. That one encounter changed everything and Whitehead’s mother began to get involved more often. Whitehead’s best advice? Give it time. “When my mom first moved to her assisted living, I knew she was having a hard time adjusting because she often preferred to stay in her apartment rather than engage in activities. She would occasionally tell me she was having a tough time. I let her know it was okay to have the feelings she had, and also let her know what a relief it was for me that she was safe,” recalls Whitehead. Her mother has since fully adjusted to her new life and helps welcome and encourage the newcomers. Don’t be the bad guy–these signs indicate that you might be a toxic parent. 

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Stay in touch and listen

During the first few weeks, plan on visiting regularly to help your parent transition into assisted living life. You’ll likely hear a lot of negative things. It’s crucial to validate their feelings, even if you think they’re just being negative or over sensitive. “Oftentimes, I hear children say things such as, ‘It’s not that bad,’ or ‘You’re just being negative,'” says Futrell. “While it may be true, it only serves to increase the feelings of inadequacy and loneliness a parent may initially feel.” Practice the nine things all good listeners do. Encourage them to become involved in the activities the assisted living offers, but don’t be too pushy. In time, they’ll make friends. It’s important for the parent to come to the realization that this new life isn’t so bad on their own time. So while you may feel comfortable knowing they are safe and well cared for, it may take a bit longer for your parent to fully be on board.

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Keep in touch with the staff

In the first weeks, check in with the staff periodically. “The staff doesn’t know your parent well yet, so it’s always a good idea to be present and make sure the small things that make your parent’s life feel routine and comfortable are also part of their life in the facility,” suggests Futrell. Questions about medication for example, should be clarified with the staff. And here’s a list of the questions you should ask about new or changed prescriptions. Keep your parent in the loop about the details so they still feel like they have some say about their health care.

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Don’t be a helicopter kid

Your parent needs time to acclimate to this new living style on their own. That can be especially difficult if your parent can’t effectively communicate on their own due to Alzheimer’s. Resist the urge to check on them constantly or visit every day. “Allow your parent time on their own to get to know people and adjust,” suggests Futrell. “A successful transition to an assisted living facility requires that you understand that your parent often perceives such a move as indicative of their loss of independence, dignity, and virility,” says Futrell. It’s normal for your parent to experience a range of emotions, both positive and negative. “Listening, being present, and allowing your parent to experience all of these emotions while also conveying how important they are to you goes a long way toward a smooth transition and to maintaining and facilitating greater happiness for your parent,” says Futrell.

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, Family Handyman and Taste of Home, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.