The transition to memory care can be difficult for families to navigate. Strong emotions, confusion, and shifting relationships may play out in interactions with a loved one moving to a memory care community.
For advice on this common yet personal experience, A Place for Mom reached out to Teepa Snow, a noted dementia care expert. Snow’s positive approach to care hopes to empower families to best support seniors.
Snow cautions families against moving all of a senior’s personal items at once, which may cause panic. Instead of making the change feel immediate from the start, caregivers should frame the move as a trial period while their loved one adapts.
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“Slowly introduce things to make it more homelike,” Snow advises. “Say, ‘Would you like your pillow?’ or ‘Would you like this one picture?’’’
Moving into a memory care facility marks a big change — one that requires time and patience from everyone involved. Snow cautions families to expect a window of four to six weeks for seniors to become acclimated. During this time, family members should validate seniors’ feelings, rather than simply push past them.
“The person wants what they had before, whether it was working for them or not,” Snow explains. “Say, ‘I hear you. This is really hard.’”
In the early days after a move, the presence of a loved one may trigger homesickness or other negative emotions. To account for this, someone may step in as a “surrogate” visitor. This person can have similar conversations with the senior while establishing a more neutral connection.
From the surrogate visitor, you can get a good picture of how your parent is adjusting. Ask yourself this key question from Snow: “Who can be present for her, so that you can know she’s OK and feels pleasure from being with them?” For a while, Snow says, that person might not be you.
Try to avoid visits in the evening. Not only does this time coincide with symptoms of sundown syndrome, but it can upset your loved one when you leave for home without them. To prevent this reaction, plan visits around the morning or lunchtime, when you can mention leaving for work or running errands instead.
When someone moves to memory care, it’s natural for family members and friends to pull back as a way to promote socialization among memory care residents. Despite this instinct, Snow warns that an “all-or-nothing” approach might prove ineffective. As your senior loved one becomes more involved in their community, disengage slowly and in stages.
Typically, seniors transition to memory care when it becomes too difficult for caregivers and family members to manage dementia behaviors like aggression, confusion, and repetitive speech. However, Snow encourages family members to focus on the traits the person still has, not what they’ve lost.
“No matter how much has changed, they’re still somebody with something to offer,” Snow says. “We have to support them where they are. Then, we want to give them the right care so that they can shine.”
Above all, Snow highlights the individualized nature of every transition. There’s no exact formula for assuring a memory care facility is the right fit — but instead multiple opportunities to evaluate and readjust. Snow approaches these moments with one key question: What did go OK?
While challenges are normal, watch out for persisting red flags. If a senior has difficulty making friends or engaging in community activities, consider making a more in-depth plan and talking with staff to address it.
In more extreme cases, if a senior continues to express distress and asks to come home after six weeks, this may signal they feel trapped and abandoned. This scenario could indicate a bad match. With a little flexibility, families can explore shifts within the community or go forward with more knowledge and find a better fit.
Kara Lewis is a content writer at A Place for Mom. She’s worked in writing, editing, and creative strategy for several years, most recently at Andrews McMeel Universal, Hallmark, and Gannett Media. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Alma, and The Kansas City Star, among other outlets. She has won awards for digitally conscious journalism, investigative reporting, magazine writing, and poetry.