Moving is never easy but moving to assisted living often involves a few more high-stress situations, such as downsizing or selling the family home. For some seniors, this move represents the next chapter of life, which is full of new opportunities, relationships and adventures. But for others, leaving their home and making a move to an assisted living community can be very difficult, which makes the process stressful for many caregivers, too.
Regardless of your loved one’s attitudes, this guide will offer advice for how to be supportive and efficient as you and your loved ones manage this major life event. Although the time it takes to transition is different for everyone, the keys to success are the same: preparation, a positive attitude, a supportive network of family and friends, and patience and understanding will prepare you for a smooth transition.
Downsizing a Home
Many older adults who are preparing to move to assisted living are also faced with the overwhelming task of organizing, cleaning, discarding and packing up decades of family history and memories. To you, it may feel like a breath of fresh air to get rid of the things your parent has accumulated, but the family no longer needs. To your loved one it can feel like they’re getting rid of items that are closely linked to their identities, their past and their memories. Here are some ways to help ease the transition for your loved one.
Downsizing can be stressful both emotionally and physically, so avoid tackling the entire house in one day. Instead, think of downsizing as a process, not an event. If you can, start this process six months to a year prior to moving to assisted living. Start the decluttering process by shredding, tossing or giving away the obvious items, such as outdated food or medications, clothes, or extraneous household items that take up space. Now is also when grown children who use the home as a storage unit need to claim their keepsakes. Go room by room, and continue this decluttering process monthly until you start the major activities of sorting and packing for the move.
Plan on going through one room at a time, and sort items into three categories using colored tags or stickers:
- Green for items you want to save
- Blue for items you want to donate, sell or give away to a friend
- Red for items to discard.
Although you could have an orange category for items you might possibly save, then you’ll need to revisit these later and continue paring down. Relocation experts suggest following the OHIO rule: Only handle it once. It helps to frame decisions as yes-no questions, such as, “I’ve got your best frying pan, a large pot and a small sauce pot. Does that sound good?” instead of “Which pots and pans do you want to keep?”
When it comes to photos and memorabilia, consider digitizing images and important papers, and pick favorite prints to display on the walls. If your loved one has a collection of items, ask them to choose one or two of their favorites to keep. If there are some items that are particularly hard for your parents to decide what to do with, be patient. Ask for the story behind the object. This can be a nice opportunity for you both to talk about memories, reminisce about family activities or relatives, and to acknowledge your emotions.
Get Rid of Unneeded Items
When thinking about what to discard, if it’s chipped, broken or stained – toss it. Also, don’t be shy about tossing replaceable items without consultation, such as old spices, junk mail, old magazines, unused toiletries, plastic food containers, etc. If your local garbage company has limits on how many large black trash bags it will take, Waste Management’s Bagster is a smaller-scale alternative to a Dumpster that doesn’t harm your driveway. Services such as 1-800-Got-Junk and 1-800-Junk-USA remove appliances and furniture as well as smaller items.
Before selling items, consider if they’re worth the time it will take to sell them. If you have several items of high value, look at getting an appraisal from an expert. Furniture and other items can go to estate sale companies, auction, websites like eBay or Craigslist, or consignment shops. Donate the remainder of the items to charities in your area that will pick them up.
Use the New Space as a Guide
Make a floor plan or template of the new home so you’ll know how much space you will have to work with. Identify which rooms in the house your loved one spends the most time and ask them which items (furniture and mementos) in that room are most important to them. Think about where major furniture will go in the new place.
Pack It Up
Pre-labeling items as you sort them can make packing a lot easier. Label all boxes with their destination room or area in their new apartment. Here’s a list of items to possibly bring with your parent to assisted living:
Pack the things your loved one will want to have available on move-in day in boxes labeled “open first.” These items might include fresh bedding, soap, toilet paper, toothpaste and toothbrush, comb, nightclothes, towel, plate and utensils, one change of clothes.
Hire a Pro
If this is all too much, consider bringing in the pros. National Association of Senior Move Managers specialize in helping older adults and their families with the process of downsizing and moving to a new residence and can assist with everything from organizing, sorting and downsizing to arranging for the profitable disposal of unwanted items to interviewing, scheduling and overseeing movers. They usually charge an hourly fee that varies by locale.
Selling a Home
If you have to sell a home to make the move to assisted living, having a licensed real estate agent who is familiar with the unique challenges that may occur selling a senior’s home is important. That’s why the National Association of Realtors created a special designation for realtors who work with seniors. By taking the Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES) course, realtors learn:
- Key differences in housing options, from age-restricted communities to age-in-place design to assisted living
- Applications of the Housing for Older Persons Act (HOPA)
- Ins and outs of reverse mortgages
- How to use pensions, 401k accounts and IRAs in real estate transactions
- Ways in which Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security affect real estate decisions of clients and customers who are 50+
- How to recognize and protect their clients from mortgage finance and loan schemes and scams that target 50+ borrowers
Visit the SRES website and use your zip code to search their database for a specialist near you.
Interview Potential Real Estate Agents
- How many older adults have you helped sell their homes?
- On average, how close to the asking price is the final sale price on homes you have sold?
- What do you do differently when approaching the sale of a senior’s home, as opposed to that of a younger family?
- Is there an optimal month to try to sell a home in my area?
- What will you do to market the home?
- What are some improvements we can make to the home?
- Do you work on your own or as part of a team?
- How many clients are you currently representing?
- How will you keep me informed about progress?
- Can I see your references?
Stage the Home to Sell
For many older adults, their house is their largest asset, and the proceeds from its sale can be used to finance the move to their next home. The real estate agent you choose should be able to offer assistance with home staging, or presenting the home well to prospective buyers so your loved ones can get the best possible return on their investment. If you need to help stage your family member’s home for a quick and successful sale, here are a few suggestions:
- Enhance curb appeal: First impressions can make or break the sale of a home. So give the front door a fresh coat of paint, upgrade your mailbox and put a few pots of flowers on the front porch.
- Clear the clutter: You should have cut most of the clutter during the downsizing process, but now you have to take it one step further. The goal is to have rooms, cupboards, closets and other storage spaces look as spacious as possible. This might require temporarily using off-site storage (or your garage), but it is well worth the trouble.
- Get the house sparkling clean: No one wants to buy a dirty house, so clean every room from top to bottom, including ceiling fans, windows, woodwork, walls and floors. If it’s an especially large house, you might want to hire pros. A vase of cut flowers, a basket of fresh farmer’s market produce on the kitchen counter or a bowl of lemons beside the sink will leave your parents’ home looking and smelling clean.
- Welcome visitors with good lighting: Good lighting is key to creating an inviting home. Open curtains and blinds to let in as much sunshine as possible. If the house lacks natural light, strategically place floor lights and table lamps in darker areas of the home. Entice people to explore the whole house by placing something that draws the eye at the top of the stairs, such as a hanging light. And keep the porch lights on in the evenings in case potential buyers drive by.
Planning the Physical Move
Once you set a firm date for the move, find and get estimates from moving companies. Some fees may be negotiable if you plan ahead and schedule the move for nonpeak times. Be sure you have a written contract from the moving company and a clear idea of coverage for lost or damaged possessions.
Many assisted living communities have team members who can help you or your loved one hang pictures, shelves, or wall-mounted items like a television. You will want to find out what assistance the community offers before you arrive on moving day. Most communities will give you a copy of the contract that is signed on or before moving day. Take time to review this before the move to make moving day as smooth as possible.
In the week leading up to the move, notify providers for utilities such as gas and electricity of the intent to discontinue services (unless the home will remain on the market during the move). Complete address changes for:
- Post office
- Credit cards
- Bank accounts
- Investment and retirement accounts
- Medicare and Social Security
- Voter’s registration
- Driver’s license and/or car registration
- Newspaper and magazine subscriptions
- Social clubs and places of worship
Notify family and friends as well as your loved one’s lawyer, accountant, insurance agent, etc.
Identify if prescriptions should be filled in advance or if the assisted living community will arrange to have medications available on day of move in.
Navigating Move-In Day
The day before move-in day, confirm the time of the mover’s arrival at both the old and new residences. Have someone assigned to meet the movers at the new residence. Be sure they have a key, and make sure the community manager is expecting you.
Once all the boxes have made it to their new home, use the “open first” boxes to set up the bedroom and bathroom immediately. Get someone to help if you can, and work as quickly as you can to make it feel like “home.” Create a familiar setting for your love one in their new apartment by placing items in the room where they’re used to seeing them. For example, set up the nightstand with the same clock and framed photos that were in the home. Bring a favorite recliner or beloved quilt and display favorite knick-knacks around the room. It’s best to unpack and organize your loved one’s new apartment without them there. Have a family member or friend plan an afternoon outing with them so when they walk into their new apartment, it’s organized, familiar with their most prized items, and ready for a relaxing evening.
Once you have finished settling your loved one into their new apartment, take a walk around the community, or a visit down to the dining room (if it’s during dining hours) to meet a new person or two. Helping your loved one meet their first new acquaintance can reduce any nervousness they might be feeling. Some assisted living communities have a resident ambassador program for new residents. Find out if that’s available prior to the move. If it isn’t available, ask the community manager or activities director to match your parent with a person who lives near or has similar interest so that your parent has a new friend from the beginning.
Review the activities calendar with your loved one and identify at least one activity they can participate in on their first full day living in the community.
Transitioning to Care
A smooth medical transition is important to your parent’s health, so get to know the staff that will be caring for your parent. Keep up with any recommended changes in medication or care and how they might impact your parent. Ensure your parent knows how to call for help, and when it might be appropriate to do so. It can be a big adjustment having someone available 24 hours a day to help after living at home alone for so long, or with an adult child whom they preferred not to bother in the middle of the night.
During the first week, you’ll better understand the routines of the community, such as what it’s like during meals, shift change and at different times during the day when activities your loved one is interested in occur. You’ll begin to recognize familiar faces.
The more you get to know their care providers, the better you’ll feel about your care decision. On the day of admission, you likely met care providers, the community nurse or nurses, an activities director and the community manager. During subsequent visits, re-introduce yourself to those caring for your loved one. Identify which community team members your parent is connecting with most by talking to your mom or dad about their new care team.
Helping Your Loved One Adjust
Seniors’ reactions differ after such an upheaval in their lives. Many people feel relief at not being alone and not having to maintain a large house. But others may be withdrawn and hesitant about making new friends. Plan to check in often with your parent. Adjusting to the new surroundings may take days, weeks or months. Here are some things you can do to make it easier.
Visit and Call Regularly
If possible, develop a visiting schedule with your loved one. Routine can be comforting. Your loved one may feel more energetic or social at certain times of the day, so try and visit during those times to make visits meaningful. To make visits enjoyable, think about the activities or hobbies your loved one enjoys. These could include listening to music, playing games, watching movies or sports, or swapping stories. If you are ever at a loss for ideas, talk with the community’s activity director, who may have suggestions and possibly materials to lend, such as helping a resident write letters, bringing board games or a deck of cards, or taking a leisurely stroll.
Make It Easy to Continue an Old Routine
If your loved one always started each morning with a newspaper in one hand and a cup of joe in the other, arrange for a daily delivery of the newspaper, or have it forwarded to their new address and ensure they have a steady supply of coffee.
Encourage Your Parent to Volunteer within the Community
Many assisted living communities have resident volunteers that take on roles at the community such as leading a craft group, managing the library or sponsoring a club. When residents feel useful and as though they have a purpose, it can improve their outlook and help immensely with the transition.
Allow Them to Be Independent
Although it’s important to visit and/or call to monitor the status of the transition, don’t become too protective or feel as though you need to be with them all the time during the transition, as this can be counterproductive. Visiting often during the first days after the move does help make sure your loved one doesn’t feel abandoned, but refrain from taking this too far, as excessive hand-holding could prevent your parent from successfully adapting to their new home.
Making the move to an assisted living community is a big undertaking. But, with a clear plan, the right amount of support, and a positive attitude, your loved one can enjoy the benefits of making new friends, enjoying activities they once used to love, and receiving the right amount of care and support they need.