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The Emotional Challenges of Relocating

Updated February 21, 2020

Leacey Brown

SDSU Extension Gerontology Field Specialist

Our home is the physical embodiment of our memories. Our home is where our children took their first steps and scraped their knee. Our home is where family gatherings occurred. We weathered storms there. We planted the tree in the front. Our home is an extension of ourselves. Unfortunately, our home is not always the best place for us to remain as we reach advanced age.

We live in housing for people who will never grow old, meaning it was not designed with the needs of older people in mind. For example, many homes have a laundry room located in the basement. As a person ages they may become frailer, making stairs difficult to climb. They may arrive at a point when they are no longer able to perform the most routine tasks (e.g., preparing meals). In addition, single family homes have yard that require maintenance.

Even when an older person makes the decision to move on their own, it can be a very challenging. Many older people have been living in their home for a significant portion of their life. They may have also lost a spouse or a loved one and see the home as their final earthly connection to that person. When an older person is forced to move from the home because of disease, disability, or injury, it can be a very traumatic experience.

Easing the Transition

Here are some tips to ease the transition:

  • Allow time for the emotional stuff—the home and items it contains are an extension of our memories. Don’t downplay the importance of this. Spend time reminiscing. Write family memories and events associated with the home or special items.
  • Downsize in small bite size chunks of time—going through possessions stimulates our memories. Making decisions about these items can be very difficult. Plan to sort items in 2-hour blocks of time and take regular breaks. Allow you and your loved ones to process what is happening.
  • Develop a plan of action for downsizing—start with rooms used less frequently like the basement or guest bedroom.
  • Develop a sorting system—stickers, piles, or detailed list. For example, use a color sticker system to indicate property that will be kept, given to family, donated, and sold.
  • Give yourself time—don’t rush. Allow you and your loved one time to look at old pictures, read cards, and grieve.
  • Make the decision to move before a crisis occurs—if the decision to move is prompted by a crisis (e.g. falling down stairs), the number of options for housing may be more limited. For example, an assisted living facility may not accept a person who requires a higher level of assistance. Moving to an assisted living facility or hiring help (e.g. laundry, meal preparation, and cleaning) may help keep the older adult independent for a longer period of time. During a crisis, a person may not have the time or ability process the emotional components of downsizing and moving.

Transfer Trauma

It is important to discuss what transfer trauma is and the various names associated to this. Transfer Trauma is a nursing diagnosis characterized by symptoms such as anxiety, confusion, hopelessness, and loneliness. It may result in pre-mature death. It usually occurs in older adults shortly after moving from one location to another. Other names associated with transfer trauma are, relocation stress syndrome and elder transfer trauma. It is important to ease this transition and plan according to relieve stress involved with moving.

Here are some tips to relieve stress:

  • Plan ahead – planning ahead allows families and individuals to be prepared for the unexpected. Often moving from the home to a different environment is the result of unexpected injury or worsening of health. Openly discussing and planning for level of care and physical limitations can ease the stress in moving.
  • Include parent/older adult in planning – research shows that when our loved ones are involved in the planning to move that the symptoms of transfer trauma are lower. Being involved in their own future provides a sense of control in their environment and being familiar with what to expect.
  • Research together the different living options – openly discussing levels of care and what an individual may want in their environment is important. Care needs may lead to different living arrangements than what the individual may desire. Again, actively planning and discussing with loved ones may ensure the best living arrangements based on care needs and personal preferences.
  • Start small and start early – one of the most difficult tasks for some individuals is going through possessions. Starting this process earlier allows the individual the time they need to process the move to a new home. For example, focus on one room at a time when downsizing possessions and take breaks to reminisce. Doing these small tasks first may make the biggest task easier. Remember that it is okay to ask for help. Feel free to look into professional movers as well.
  • Stay organized – organization is key to making a move less stressful. Ensuring that items are being sorted and labels makes it easier to pack and unpack later. Make sure that you keep important documents together and ensure they are easy to locate. Creating a list from the very beginning is extremely beneficial, it will not only help you but your loved one with the new life transition.

Managing Property

Once the process of sorting everything is completed, downsizing can be accomplished in different ways. Do you have items you would consider bequeathing to loved ones now? Imagine the joy you will experience watching your loved one using your possession (e.g. giving a china set to a daughter). Do you have items that you have not used in the past year? It is time to let those items go as you relocate into smaller housing. Do you have enough items that would make a garage sale or home auction worthwhile? You can hire a service agency to catalog and appraise possessions. In addition, they will coordinate an auction for a portion of the profits. Consider donating your unwanted possessions to a charity. They may even be willing to come to your home to pick up the items. Set a deadline for adult children to remove their childhood possession.

Dividing property can be very challenging as older adults downsize to relocate into smaller housing. Here are some tips for dividing up possessions:

  • Develop a system and stick to it—for example assign each member a sticker so they know which items are theirs or have family members take turns selecting items
  • Be sure everyone gets something special
  • Disagreements may happen—encourage negotiation. Avoid being offended if family members elect to trade items.

Our home and possessions are an important component of our identity. The decision to move from the family home to assisted living or an apartment is rarely an easy one. Acting before a crisis, is the key to easing this transition. Give you and your loved ones the time necessary to emotionally process downsizing and relocation.

References and Additional Resources: