Moving Your Parents to Senior Living: Making the Difficult Choice

Elderly woman sitting alone in her room with sunlight coming in the window
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By Claire Samuels, staff writer

Your parents say they won’t move.

It’s a common, exhausting scenario: You see signs that your aging parents need help, 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 a child will ever have to make, says Stella Henry, R.N., 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 loudly and clearly 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 your parents’ promises, 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 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.

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 crisis situations, 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.

3 Ways to Cope with Guilt

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

  3. Give it time.

    As with any change, there will be an adjustment period — for children and for 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.

From Angry 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 state 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 the dementia actually started.”

It wasn’t until she began caring for her mother full time that Marjorie realized she was right. The lack of a medically prepared support system put stress on her mom’s health, as well as on her family’s and her own. Now, years later, her father needs extra care.
“One positive result occurred, however — after experiencing all of the feelings of guilt with my mother’s situation, I was clear 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.