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Overcome the Guilt of Moving a Parent to Senior Living

13 minute readLast updated January 12, 2024
fact checkedon January 12, 2024
Written by Claire Samuels
Reviewed by Jordan McCoy, LIMPHJordan McCoy is a Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner who is passionate about connecting with caregivers of seniors.
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Your parents say they won’t move. It’s a common, exhausting scenario: You see signs that your aging parents need more help than you’re able to provide, but they refuse it. Perhaps one or both of your parents’ health has taken a turn for the worse, or maybe your own health and relationships are suffering, so you know it’s time for a change. By focusing on the small victories, accepting some uncertainty, remaining patient, and visiting often, you can start to overcome some of the guilt you may feel after a parent moves to senior living.

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Having the conversation and ultimately moving elderly parents to assisted living, or another form of senior living, is probably one of the hardest decisions someone will ever have to make, says Stella Henry, a registered nurse and author of The Eldercare Handbook.

“Many seniors unrealistically believe they can take care of themselves for the rest of their lives,” she says. That’s why family members can be instrumental in identifying problems and making changes to help their loved ones, Stella adds.

Reasons we feel guilty

Even when you know relocating your parents to a senior living community is the right thing to do for their safety and health, feelings of guilt or even shame may arise. Shame can encompass feelings of inadequacy when something appears to have gone wrong, while guilt can look like feelings of remorse for something you’ve caused.

“Emotions range from feeling inadequate to feeling overly responsible,” says Dr. Stephan Quentzel, a psychiatrist in New York affiliated with Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital.

No matter our age, the role reversal is uncomfortable

“We want our parents to remain decision-makers,” Quentzel says. “We’re upset when we have to take over their roles. We feel guilty about the role reversal.” Taking on the responsibility of finding an suitable living environment for your parent or other elder can be taxing overall, but please know that it’s normal to feel uncomfortable during this time.

We feel our caregiving efforts have failed

We assume the act of moving loved ones into assisted living declares loud and clear that we can’t handle taking care of them, says Quentzel. “The paradox, of course, is that we want nothing more than to ease our parents’ pain and suffering, even to sacrifice our comfort temporarily to improve their overall lives.” Even so, it’s important to care for yourself and avoid caregiver burnout.

We promised we’d never put them in a “nursing home”

While in the past you may have made these types of promises to your parents, decisions must be made based on what’s best for the parent at the given time, says Barry Jacobs, a doctor of psychology and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Parents. “Often, putting a parent [in senior living] is the most loving act that a child can do because it improves the quality of the parent’s life from medical and social perspectives. Parents often thrive, to their great surprise.”

We know we’re asking a lot from our parents

Change is hard for everyone, and a move to assisted living or long-term care is a big change. Suddenly, you’re asking your parents to form acquaintances, trust professional caregivers, navigate unfamiliar schedules, and acclimate to new environments.

How to combat feelings of guilt

Deciding it is time to move a loved one to a senior care home, even if they’re willing to move, can be difficult and may create feelings of guilt. Seeing your loved ones begin to struggle in their daily lives is tough on everyone involved.

Although difficult to deal with, feelings of guilt are normal, just like the desire to improve the quality of life of your loved one. Here are some tips to help you overcome these feelings of guilt while moving your older loved ones.

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Know feelings of guilt are normal

Guilt can come from conflicting feelings about how to best care for your senior loved one. Please know that your conflicting feelings are proof that you care about your loved one’s well-being.

Ensure that the guilt you’re feeling doesn’t shift to shame. While guilt is a normal process of making this decision for your parent, shame is not. Remember: You are adequate, valuable, and worthy. This decision is hard but does not mean anything about your worth.

Although it may feel like you are taking away your senior’s ability to make decisions for themselves or breaking previous promises to them, transitioning them to a senior living community can actually empower them. In senior living, they may be able to make more of their own decisions that best suit their wants and needs while being supported in a safe environment.

Reach out for support

Leaning on support groups can help alleviate feelings of guilt during the process of moving a senior loved one to a senior living community. Talk to a family member, friend, or therapist to help sort out emotions and validate current feelings. Reaching out can also provide more perspectives and advice you might not have considered before.

Compare the alternative

When experiencing feelings of guilt, take time to think about why you’re making this decision. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will my loved one be safer in a senior living community?
  • Will my loved one have better access to consistent personal and medical care?
  • Is my loved one isolated?
  • Can I continue to provide the level of care my senior needs?

Remember, the bottom line is that you’re trying to do what’s best for your loved one.

Research thoroughly

Today, senior living is more than putting a loved one in a nursing home. Senior living communities nowadays are quite often vibrant environments that offer services, amenities, and activities to make seniors feel engaged and at home. With a full understanding of what different senior living communities offer, you and your loved one can feel more comfortable making a transition.

Researching what local senior living communities offer can help reassure you that making the move to a senior living community is the right option for you and your loved one. In addition, an in-person or virtual tour can give you a better feel for the setting and what to expect.

Pro Tip: Make it your problem, not theirs

Earlier is better than later to discuss a move to assisted living — though many wait. Henry says 95% of her clients come to her in crises, which often results in caregiver guilt and added stress. If you have the discussion early and often, your loved one will be better prepared for the next steps.

As for what to say? “Make it your problem instead of your parents’ problem,” says Henry. “Clearly express your concern by saying, ‘Mom, I’m concerned about you; it makes me worried to see you like this.’”

Nine out of ten parents don’t want to burden their children and will often respond to this sort of honest communication, says Henry. If you make it clear to your loved one that you’re focused on doing what’s best for both of you, it can be easier for them to accept change.

4 ways to cope with guilt after the move

Whether the process goes smoothly or there are bumps along the way, adult children often have guilty feelings about moving their elderly parents to assisted living or long-term care. Here are four ways to cope.

1. Focus on the small victories

Did your parent enjoy a meal or activity in their new home? Do you sleep better knowing they’re less likely to fall in their new surroundings? When guilt creeps in, remind yourself of the benefits of their new home, experts say.

“Small victories include excellent palliative care, creating meaningful activities, even keeping our parents together for as long as possible,” Quentzel says.

2. Accept some uncertainty

Being put in the position to make critical arrangements for others is often hugely stressful. When the task concerns relocating your parents to an assisted living community or nursing home — a decision with enormous financial and lifestyle consequences — the anxiety and second-guessing can be even higher.

Remember why you made the choices you did, but know that some uncertainty will remain about how things might turn out. After the move, visit and stay in touch often to see how things are going.

Find predictable things that both you and your parent can hold onto during this time of uncertainty. These things can include sticking to a routine, finding a specific time you will visit consistently, and ensuring that the things they enjoyed living at home are still accessible to them.

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3. Give it time

As with any change, there will be an adjustment period — for children and their aging parents. It will likely take time for your parents’ relocation to senior living to bear fruit. Strike up a conversation with family members visiting their loved ones and ask them how they dealt with the change.

Connecting with your loved one is one of the most profound things you can do throughout this transition. Your connection can heal and help feelings transform. Enjoy meaningful moments with your loved one, and restorative time doing what you like to do, during this transition period.

4. Visit often

By visiting often, you can help your loved one can feel more like they’re welcoming a guest into their home rather than feeling like they are a guest at an extended stay facility. Continuing normal routines in a senior’s new home can help you and your senior loved one feel more comfortable with the new living arrangement. Visiting often also keeps you in the know about what’s going on with your loved one and helps your parent feel more connected.

From confused and overwhelmed to peaceful and confident: One caregiver’s story

“Dealing with my mother’s dementia, which came on so quickly, challenged every fiber of who I am,” Marjorie W. of Washington recalls. “My mother was a very sharp woman who made me promise, after having dinner with a family member suffering from dementia, that I would never allow her to become like that. But I had no idea how to deal with this demand once dementia started.”

It wasn’t until she began caring for her mother full time that Marjorie realized she was in over her head. The lack of a medically prepared and knowledgeable support system put added stress on her mother’s health, as well as on her family’s health and her own. Now, years later, her father needs extra care. This time, Marjorie is better prepared to do what’s needed.

“One positive result occurred — after experiencing all of the feelings of guilt with my mother’s situation, I was clear that placing my father in an assisted-living situation was the right thing to do. Because I had bound myself in guilt with my mother, the questions surrounding my father’s relocation were mostly answered.”

Marjorie’s father made a smooth transition to assisted living and then to a nursing home when the time was right. He had the ability to help choose his living situation and thrived in his new home.

Don’t go it alone

Watching your parents grow old can be an exhausting and painful process. Although your parents might be apprehensive about leaving the homes they are familiar with, the move to senior living can be a positive experience for everyone involved. The move may even vastly improve the lives of both seniors and their loved ones.

The journey to senior living does not have to be exhausting or painful. Reach out to A Place for Mom to find support, guidance, and a listening ear to help you through this challenging time. Our Senior Living Advisors can provide the knowledge you need to make the best decision for you and your parents.


Meet the Author
Claire Samuels

Claire Samuels is a former senior copywriter at A Place for Mom, where she helped guide families through the dementia and memory care journey. Before transitioning to writing, she gained industry insight as an account executive for senior living communities across the Midwest. She holds a degree from Davidson College.

Reviewed by

Jordan McCoy, LIMPH

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