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Rita Altman, R.N. Headshot

Helping Older Adults Cope With Lifestyle Changes

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During the holidays, some families may notice changes in their senior loved one's cognitive or physical health, prompting them to consider that it may be time for them to move to a senior living community. When that time comes, some may take it for granted and assume it's a natural transition. After all, senior living communities offer many wonderful care options, not to mention the countless opportunities for social engagement. On the surface, what appears to be a simple solution can be much more complex than anticipated.

Even though most seniors possess resiliency, as they have encountered many life-changing experiences and events, relocating to a new environment is one more life change that can result in anxiety and stress. This is referred to as relocation stress syndrome (RSS), or transfer trauma, and can even occur in cases when the older adult, who under good circumstances, has voluntarily made the decision to move. Some of the symptoms are sleep disturbances, anger, depression and disorientation. When the move is precipitated by the loss of a spouse or partner, or chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, or a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, it can be even more difficult to bounce back.

On the positive side, aging experts at the University of Arizona Center on Aging remind us that older adults actually have a higher level of subjective well-being, or life satisfaction, than individuals in any other age group. According to the center, so-called "resilience thinking" allows older adults to deal with crises like an illness or losing a loved one and to come away feeling stronger.

The following tips will help you to ease the transition and support your loved one when it comes time for them to make a move.

1. Involve your senior loved one in the process of making the decision to move

Have you ever heard someone say, "She put her mother in a home"? This sounds like the older adult is an object and not a person. Fortunately, I don't hear this as often as I used to, but it does speak to the insensitivity of some when it comes to making the decision to have their loved one move to a senior living residence. Hoping to decrease the stress on their loved one, well-intentioned family members often take on the role of finding the best place for their loved ones to live without asking for their input. Leaving the senior out of the conversation takes away their voice and sense of control in making the decision. If possible, invite them to tour the community with you so that they can give you their feedback. In addition, having a meal there or joining in an activity can give them the opportunity to identify some potential friends with whom they might find common bonds. When it comes time to make the move, the new environment will feel more comfortable and familiar.

2. Validate your loved one's expression of concern about the move

While it might feel more comfortable to avoid the conversation, in the long run it will help to make the transition less uncomfortable if we listen to all of their concerns. Sometimes, our natural instinct may be to reassure or tell them how wonderful and positive the move will be. It's only natural that we want to make things better and remove the uncomfortable feelings, but it's best to let them openly express their feelings about the move. By expressing his or her anger, fear, or confusion, they feel respected and heard. Remember to be honest and do not lie about where or why they are moving -- it's the best policy, because even seniors with memory loss often remember the story their family told and will repeatedly ask when they can go home. This can set the stage for distrust and further confusion.

3. Ensure extra time and attention the first few days

Extra attention, observation and support can make a big difference, especially during the first few days after the move. Ask the staff at the community if there is someone who can stop in regularly to check on your loved one and talk with them. Some communities have a resident ambassador who welcomes new residents, making them feel at home. Reach out to the person responsible for life enrichment or activities programming and ask them to invite and encourage their new resident to attend activities, which can be a great opportunity to strike up new friendships.

4. Tap into their coping method

Some people adjust to a change of environment with very little difficulty while others show signs of withdrawal or have emotional outbursts or angry responses. If we know how the older adult typically responds to stress and can share this with the caregivers in the community, they can be watchful and better able to anticipate and respond to their needs. Knowing what activity helps your loved one to cope can be very helpful. For example, I know of a senior who always feels better when she listens to folk music. Whenever she begins to feel anxious or stressed, she will retire to her room -- you'll hear the sound of music in the background and often hear her singing along to it. Another resident prefers to have a sense of purpose and one of his favorite coping methods is to help others, especially in the dining room where he enjoyed setting the table. Having a sense of purpose fulfills his basic human need to give his life meaning.

5. Involve family and friends

Every person responds differently to a move but most need to be assured that they have not lost their connections to their greater community and most importantly, their friends and family. Be sure to ask the senior living community if they provide ongoing opportunities for residents to have planned outings for dining and shopping, as well as meeting their cultural, civic, entertainment and spiritual needs. Assure them that you will visit as frequently as you can. Even if you live far away, you can still keep in touch by telephone, letter writing, Skype or email. Another idea is to create a video that your loved one can watch when they are feeling sad or disconnected. The adjustment for the family member can be just as difficult, so it's important to have a team member at the community that you can check in with from time to time, and who can tell you how your loved one is doing, as well as to offer you support and guidance.

Having the conversation with your loved one, and relocating them to their new home, may be challenging. Taking the time to understand their feelings, and providing extra thought and attention, can make all the difference in a smooth transition, during the holidays or any time of the year.

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