Do you have an elderly relative who just moved into an independent living facility? You may have mixed feelings about this transition. On the one hand, you are relieved that your relative is not living all alone anymore, but on the other hand you are sad that they are unable to do so. In fact, you may not even know how to handle this new life phase with your relative. It may feel a little awkward as the two of you try to negotiate the fact that age, as it marches on, is changing things. Here are some suggestions to help you.
1. Visit regularly
Your relative will need some help adjusting to new surroundings. Homesickness may be very difficult to overcome, especially since at this life stage your family member knows that returning home is probably not an option. With that in mind, visit regularly; in fact, be consistent (if possible) with the days and times of your visits. Your relative will anticipate your company and, as visits become routine, they will help you develop confidence in dealing with this new life season.
2. "There you are!" not "Here I am!"
When you walk in the door to visit, your relative may be so delighted to see you that you have center stage to talk about your life. However, although talking about your job, relationships, and life in general may be tempting, it is important to focus the attention away from you. Remember, your relative has thoughts and feelings to express also, and stories to tell about what has happened at the facility since you last visited. Make sure that your time together is not one-sided.
3. Find common ground
Discover an activity the two of you can enjoy together. Ideas include:
- playing a card or board game
- walking around a neighborhood park
- eating take-out from a particular restaurant
- reading books by an author you both like
- catching up on episodes of a favorite TV show
Looking forward to an activity of which you are both fond will build valuable bridges between you during this time of transition.
4. Look and listen
This refers to more than just letting your relative talk about what they have done since the last time you saw each other. It's important that you read between the lines to assess how your relative is adjusting to this new life. Elderly people are at high risk for depression; in fact, six million seniors in this country experience depression. However, only about 10% of them receive treatment, perhaps partly due to the struggle going unrecognized by family and friends. As you spend time with your relative, be attentive to these signs of depression:
- vague complaints of nonspecific pain
- change in sleeping or eating patterns
- declining interest in activities or social events
- increasing isolation
- refusal to take medication
- statements that indicate hopelessness or thoughts of suicide
If you notice these indicators in your relative, talk to the social worker or facility liaison. Offer to accompany your family member to an appointment with a counselor for professional screening.
5. Be honest
Above all, as you and your relative adjust to this new phase of their life, it is important that you are honest with your own feelings of loss. Seeing that your family member needs more assistance than usual can be difficult. If they initiate a discussion about these circumstances, don't pretend not to feel what you really do feel—express your feelings. However, put a positive context on your feelings, so your family member doesn't feel overwhelmed by your distress. If you are having great difficulty with your emotions, talk to other relatives or seek professional counsel.
Seeing a relative age can be difficult for a family, and the move of your relative to an independent living facility may be a challenge for all involved. Meet the challenge head on by visiting often, building bridges through mutually enjoyable activities, and honestly handling discussions that arise.