No one ever dreams of moving into an assisted living community. People plan on retirement and often plan on living in their homes until their death. But then an accident occurs or physical disabilities arise with aging, and suddenly the reality of needing assistance changes their plans to age in place.
For many, moving into an assisted living community feels less of a choice and more of a necessity. That’s why people grieve their move. It’s natural for people to grieve the loss of the future they planned, as they live into the new future given to them. Moving into an assisted living community brings surprising grief as well as surprising joy.
Experiences of Grief
We often think of grief associated with the loss of a loved one. However, we also experience grief over many other life changes: a child leaving home to head to college, moving into a new season of life or changes in our families. Moving our home to a whole new place often causes feelings of loss, sadness, anger and grief. It might feel like you’ve lost more than your home — you may feel you've lost both independence and your identity.
It reminds me a bit of when I went to college for the first time. I didn’t know anyone; I felt so homesick. College initially didn’t feel like home — it was a strange place full of strangers. But after several months, I felt more settled because I became part of the college community and felt a sense of belonging. Making friends takes time, but caring relationships help make a place into a home.
In Residents' Words
When I asked residents what helped them move in and get settled, Dick said, “Our kids helped us with the move. They measured the rooms and figured out where our furniture should go. They even bought us a TV. We couldn’t have done this without them.”
What Sally found most helpful was that several women in the dining room made her feel welcome. Relationships with family and the welcome from other residents help change a “strange place” into a home.
People are sometimes surprised by the intensity of their sadness or anger when they move in. When Fred moved into our assisted living community last week, he said, “I didn’t realize I’d be so sad.”
Grief as a Process
Grieving a move is normal and natural. But it’s also a process. Just like when I went to college for the first time, my feelings of homesickness were intense at first, but over time decreased. So it is for people moving into assisted living communities.
One way residents can help themselves through the grief process is by talking about it and naming their feelings. For some older adults, expressing feelings might take work. Some were taught to “swallow” their feelings and keep it private. Instead, I encourage them to express them. If you need to cry or complain, let yourself. Only by experiencing these feelings will you be able to move through them to a new normal. It takes time, but feelings do change in intensity and duration.
Supporting Your Loved One
One way family and friends can support loved ones moving into assisted living communities is to lend a listening ear. First, it’s important to realize that you — family, children, spouses — are “safe,” meaning you have a relationship of trust built on love. So don’t be surprised if you get the brunt of feelings of loss and anger. As much as humanly possible, try not to personalize your family member’s grief. In addition, try not to take responsibility to “fix” their problem.
Grief isn’t a problem to be resolved but a process to be experienced.
Listening is so helpful because the way people move through grief is by talking about their feelings and losses, sharing memories that are important to them. Whenever you can, quiet your own heart that worries for them, and express a calm and quiet presence. They will appreciate your loving support, best expressed with loving acceptance and tender hugs. (See this TEDTalk for more.)
I first met Caroline when she was admitted to Pilgrim Manor’s rehabilitation neighborhood following a stay in the hospital to repair a broken hip. At first, Caroline felt anxious and homesick. Within a few days, Caroline met Shirley, who was also in our rehab neighborhood. They became fast friends, sharing similar perspectives on faith and life. At the end of rehabilitation, Caroline went home, but Shirley transitioned to our assisted living community. But Caroline and Shirley kept in contact, and within three months, Caroline moved back to Pilgrim Manor in our assisted living community. She had found a true friend in Shirley, and realized living at home was more lonely than she remembered. For both Shirley and Caroline, finding an unexpected friend made each of their lives better.
New Sense of Self
Grieving is normal when you moved into an assisted living community because you experience the loss of home. But it’s also equally normal to find a new sense of meaning and self as you experience community. As Vicky, one of our residents said to me, “I didn’t expect to make friends and laugh so much. I hadn’t realized how small my circle of friends had become living by myself.”
You might be surprised how a sense of belonging in a community also gives you new feelings of happiness and joy.