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Relocation Stress Syndrome Helping the Elderly Cope with a Move


parent and daughter

Relocating with Compassion

Relocation Stress Syndrome: Providing Tender Care.....

Moving is a change that takes more than coordination, and can be quite a burden on the elderly.  These transitions are also difficult for immediate family members.  Assisting an elderly parent or relative in relocation involves both physical and emotional responsibility.  The stress of moving an older adult has many dimensions.  

The physical work of packing and moving takes a physical toll that is small compared to the emotional distress for the elderly in a move.  The fact is that the new residence will be too small to hold everything, and many years worth of treasured possessions will be inventoried and items will need to be parted with causing even more distress. 

Taking the time to communicate with the elderly mover is crucial.  Everyone involved should be up to date and informed on all decisions throughout the process. A few things to consider before the move are: 

  • Scout out new resources ahead of time. Changing doctors, drug stores, and grocery stores can be particularly stressful for the elderly.  Doing your homework ahead of time and finding new social outlets, such as nearby senior centers, can help smooth their transition.
  • Start early!  The sooner you start preparing an older person for a move the better.  Giving them plenty of time to adjust to the idea and reality of the upcoming changes will help to relieve some stress later during the actual move.
  • Help sort, organize, and downsize.  Making decisions of what to keep and what can be given or thrown away is often the most difficult part of moving for a senior.  Try to let them make their own choices as much as possible but you can assist by making suggestions when appropriate.
  • Choose your mover carefully.  Be sure to be comfortable with the moving company that you select.  Check references and read previous customer reviews.  Also, talk with the company staff before the move to notify them of any special circumstances, like moving medical equipment.  This will ensure that  unexpected problems will not arise at the last minute. 

Each situation is unique in its own way.  It is not uncommon for an elderly person to have different needs than that of an average person preparing to move.  There can be more medical issues or disabilities that need to be a priority.  When dealing with nursing homes, assisted living, or retirement homes it is possible to have an particularly longer list of "to do's" in order to successfully complete the move.  Paperwork, downsizing personal belongings, and emotional matters could be at a much greater size.  In the situation of an Alzheimer's patient, person with memory loss, or dementia even more planning, organization, and preparation will be required. 

Relocation Stress Syndrome or Transfer Trauma 

Did you know that the stress of a move can lead to a medical condition called RSS or Relocation Stress Syndrome?  The symptoms of RSS are loneliness, depression, anger, apprehension, dependency, confusion, anxiety and withdrawal and can affect anybody who moves to a new home. Minor characteristics include changes in sleeping and eating habits, insecurity, lack of trust and need for excessive reassurance.  These symptoms can last several months often persisting to over a year.  The elderly are more susceptible to this because changes in familiar routine.  RSS is also called Transfer Trauma.  Helping with the planning and details of the move reduces RSS.  

When assisting in the relocation of a senior the most important thing is to be patient and supportive physically and emotionally.  Moving to a new home can be considered the beginning of a new chapter in a life.  This can be scary and uncomfortable for most people especially the elderly.  Taking on the responsibility of coordinating and planning out the move for a friend, loved one, or parent who has lived long enough to acquire a large amount of personal belongings can be a challenge.  

During the day of the move, you can expect some things to come up unexpectedly but keep a positive attitude and you will see that the people around you will feel more comfortable.  We offer some important suggestions for the person who is assisting a senior during the moving process:

  • Start the day rested.  As mentioned above moving day takes physical and emotional energy. Have the pre-move work done early in the day before the move, so everyone involved gets a good night's sleep.
  • Explain to your parent/senior how the day will go.  Have all activities planned and organized on paper as part of the preparation. Prioritizing an outline of the ideal schedule specifically for that day is great.  Patience is important on this day to allow the senior that is moving to take as much time as needed to comprehend and understand each change and how it will happen.
  • Keep all medications with you and the senior moving!  The day could go from smooth and as planned until everyone is searching through moving boxes to find medications that are needed.  Also, make certain to refill any prescriptions that are running low, prior to the move.
  • Be calmly reassuring about the safety of the senior's material possessions.  It is hard for a senior to watch a lifetime of possessions drive away during an already stressful event. 
  • Talk about where you're going, not what is being left behind.  It's a good idea to remind the older mover about some of the advantages of their new home and what they have to look forward to.  The person who is assisting the older mover should have memorized the list of advantages. 

The importance of being there and reassuring a senior during a move that changes just about everything in their life in one day is something that is needed and helpful in taking off some of the traumatic stress they can cumulate during this time.  It can be a better experience for them if the move is well planned, organized, and if the person or people helping them are patient and allow the time needed.  

When the move is complete and things are unpacked, make sure to first unpack things of emotional importance.  For example, hang pictures on the walls of the new residence that remind them of things they love and things that make them happy.  One of the most important activities in helping an elderly person relocate is to be available for them after the move is complete.

 Help introduce them to neighbors and local places they might use for shopping or socialization.  Assure the person that you are a phone call away.  Next, stick to your word and if they do call with an issue give them the encouragement and a solution that might help relieve the stress.  Relocating is a big step for anyone but is more mentally difficult to deal with the older a person becomes.  Especially difficult situations are those where the senior has a disability or illness.  

A win-win can happen (perhaps months later)  when the senior becomes settled and comfortable in the new home.  Tender care and a loving attitude will go far in helping the older person relocate to a new life and home.