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Overcome the Guilt of Moving a Parent to Senior Living

Written by Claire Samuels
 about the author
9 minute readLast updated January 4, 2022

Your parents say they won’t move.

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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. They insist that they’re fine on their own, but the evidence and your intuition tell you that’s not true. Perhaps one or both of your parents’ health has taken a turn for the worse. Or maybe after months or years, you’re experiencing caregiver burnout and seeing your own health and relationships deteriorating.

Yet 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, she 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, guilty feelings may arise.

“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.”
  • 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.”
  • 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 muster up feelings of guilt. Seeing your loved ones begin to struggle in their daily lives is tough on everyone involved.

Although difficult to deal with, these feelings are normal, just like wanting 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. Your conflicting feelings are proof that you care about your loved one’s well-being. 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 the support of friends and family 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 questions like:
    • 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?
  • Research thoroughly. Today, senior living is more than putting a loved one in a nursing home. Senior living communities nowadays are quite often vibrant, energetic environments that offer services, amenities, and activities to make seniors feel stimulated 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. Take an in-person or virtual tour to give you a better feel for the setting and what to expect.

Thinking about these things can help reassure you that making the move to a senior living community is the right option for you and your loved one.

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.

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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. 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, that her father needs extra care, 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 and 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 senior copywriter at A Place for Mom. She’s written or contributed to more than 100 articles about senior living and healthy aging, with a special focus on dementia and memory care. Before writing about seniors, she worked as an account executive for independent and assisted living facilities across the Midwest. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Davidson College, where she focused on literature and media studies.

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