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Relocation Stress Syndrome

Updated June 02, 2020

Leacey Brown

SDSU Extension Gerontology Field Specialist

Written by Paige Madsen, former SDSU Extension Gerontology AmeriCorps VISTA Member, under the direction and review of Leacey E. Brown.

Though it may not seem like a big deal to most of us, moving can be difficult for older adults, especially when the move is not desired, and the older person has complicated medical conditions. This article will introduce you to relocation stress syndrome and provide strategies to reduce the risk of you or a loved one experiencing Relocation Stress Syndrome.

What is Relocation Stress Syndrome?

Sometimes called "transfer trauma," Relocation Stress Syndrome is a set of symptoms that occur when an individual moves from one environment to another. These symptoms can influence our behavior, mood, and physiological well-being. Anyone at any age can experience these symptoms, whether it be a child moving to a new school or a young adult going off to college. Among older adults, Relocation Stress Syndrome can lead to decline in physical and psychological well-being that can result in significant health complications and pre-mature death.

Risk Factors for Experiencing Relocation Stress Syndrome

  • Individuals with limitations getting around independently
  • Individuals with impaired cognitive function (e.g., dementia)
  • Individuals living alone, struggling with routine home maintenance, or feeling unsafe in the home environment 
  • Women
  • Widows
  • Residents in long-term care facilities at risk of closing down 
  • Natural disasters that require residents of long-term care facilities to relocate 

Consequence of Relocation Stress Syndrome

  • Pre-mature death
  • Increased depression
  • Cognitive decline
  • Psychological distress
  • Dissatisfaction with move
  • Withdrawal from social activities

While remaining in the home and community is a high priority for older adults, sometimes moving from the beloved home or community is necessary. The following are some tips to help reduce the risk of an older friend or family member experiencing Relocation Stress Syndrome. 

  • Engage the older adult person in the decision making process of selecting where they will live. Discuss their needs and preferences. Explore various options and take tours of these options. If the older person is engaged in the decision making process, they will likely experience better outcomes when they move to their new home. 
  • If possible, discuss relocation prior to a crisis. Unfortunately, many moves for older adults occur because of a fall, accident, or medical incident. If the relocation is prompted by a crisis, it is likely there will be fewer options available. 
  • If the older adult is moving to a nursing home, assisted living or other supportive housing setting, consult staff about what strategies they use to reduce the risk of a new resident experiencing Relocation Stress Syndrome. Strategies may include assigning a staff person to new residents or encouraging involvement in activities to meet other residents and staff.
  • Some older adults may have difficultly participating in the decision making process because of complicated medical conditions or impaired cognition. Do your best to keep them informed of what is going on. Give them the opportunity to ask questions.
  • Get other family members or friends involved in the process. If the mover feels less lonely during the moving process and feels as though they are being supported by family and friends, their risk of Relocation Stress Syndrome will likely be reduced. 
  • Downsizing will likely be an exceptionally emotional process for the older person. Many older adults have lived in their home for many years and have quite a few possessions. It can be difficult to go through the process of selecting what to keep and what to give away. Be available to help them sort their possessions into items they want to keep, donate, or gift to friends/loved ones. It is likely that this process will bring a lot of memories to the surface. Be sure there is sufficient time to reminisce. 
  • It may be helpful to set up the new space in a way that is similar to their old space. Bring cherished items such as pictures or other knick-knacks that make the person feel more at home. As an example, take photographs of how knick-knacks and photos were arranged on a bookshelf and organize them in a similar way in the new home.

While many older adults prefer to stay in the home they have lived in for many years, sometimes moving is necessary. We hope this article helps you or a loved one transition more smoothly. 

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