Moving to a retirement home is a major life transition. Yes, it may be an improvement for an older adult who was struggling to continue living in their own home. It offers many advantages like new social connections, in-house activity programs, meal service, medication monitoring, and help with day-to-day activities.
But let’s face it: leaving behind a home that you’ve lived in for years, possibly decades, comes with a sense of loss. Loss of a home full of family memories. Loss of autonomy.
Sara Kyle describes what that loss of autonomy might feel like for a new resident. “Before I could walk around my house and do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Now there's a kind of a set schedule.”
Sara is a resident engagement expert and founder / principal consultant of LE3Solutions in Orlando, Florida. Tea & Toast interviewed her to get her insights on the how families and retirement homes can help to ease this transition for seniors.
According to Sara, families and retirement home staff who are eager to help a new resident settle in often think that the best way to do that is push them to take part in community activities right away. The reasoning being that it will help them overcome whatever grief they may be feeling over leaving their old home.
The trouble is loss and grief don’t work that way.
Grief isn’t something you can “get over” through distraction. In fact, it’s something that ebbs and flows with time. It may never go away.
The best thing that families and retirement home staff can do is acknowledge any feelings of loss or sadness a new resident is feeling.
“I think you have to validate that loss first,” Sara says. “Let people be okay with it. Don't try to tell them no, this is a better setting for you. Listen empathetically. Say things like, ‘I see where you're coming from. I can see how this would be difficult. Don’t say, ‘I understand’ because the truth is you don’t. Not really.”
Allowing a new resident to express their ambivalence about their move makes them feel safe around you. They realize you’re willing to listen. That builds trust.
“Moving is hard,” says Sara. “I mean, take out all of the other stuff. Who loves to move?”
Another pointer: Give a new resident time to settle in rather than rushing things. Sara describes it this way: “Let me just take it in for a week or two and then see. Okay, now that I've got my apartment unpacked, I'm starting to acclimate. I'm starting to accept this. Then maybe we start to talk about how I could see myself thriving in this new beginning.”
She thinks that the sales approach that retirement homes use can sometimes inadvertently create false expectations for families. “There's this excitement. Mom's going to move in. She's going to be involved. Community is going to happen. It's effortless. And I can't wait to call back and hear that she's just busy.”
“Just because she’s not busy does not mean it's not going well,” says Sara.
She advises families: “Don’t try to push someone down a path that you've created in your mind or that a sales person has created in your mind about what's going to happen.”
Avoid nagging. Instead of saying things like: “Mom, you need to go do this” or “Just go do this,” be curious. You might say something like: “I noticed you haven’t gone to (name of activity) yet. I know that’s something you normally enjoy. Have you met someone to go with?”
Families should also recognize that personal preferences can change after a move. Just because Dad always used to like a certain type of music or food doesn’t necessarily mean that his tastes won’t change once he’s exposed to new experiences and new people. Over time, he may discover a new way to go about living life.
A new resident has to make significant social adjustments as well. Sara says that moving into a retirement home is a bit like being the new kid at school.
“No matter what age you're at, it's hard to walk into an established group and say, ‘Here I am. Here's everything about me. I hope you like it.’”
“The dining room can be a scary place in senior living,” she adds. “Just because you're all 65 and older does not mean it's a homogenous group that just says, ‘Hey, we're all best friends.’”
It’s important to be sensitive to this reality if you’re concerned that someone new to the home is slow to make friends with other residents.
Adjusting to a new home takes time. But according to Sara, seniors who have a difficult time in the beginning often adjust successfully to retirement home living. She describes it as a “switch.” They’ll say things like “This is so much different than I thought it would be.” Or “I feel like I'm a part of the family here.” Or “This is something I hadn't had for years, and it feels really good.”
And once that switch happens, they truly start to thrive.
Choosing the right retirement home for yours or your loved one’s needs can be tricky and tends to raise anxiety. Many retirement homes have resident ambassadors who can help with the transition. This is just one of the many aspects of retirement living we help clients manage.
If you or a loved one is starting the search, reach out to Tea & Toast who can help guide you through the entire process!