Moving mom: Surviving the hardest day of your life

“The day I moved my mom was the hardest day of my life,” Harriet told us. She had been able to sustain her mother, who has dementia, in an independent apartment by spending increasing amounts of time with her and hiring help from a home care agency. However it was taking a toll on Harriet, her husband, and her three young children. They considered moving her mom in with them, but she was terribly restless at their house and had walked out the front door and started down the street more than once.

Finally Harriet realized she would have to move her mother. She carefully evaluated the options and the finances and made a decision. She had promised her mom she would never move her to a nursing home and now found that she had no choice.

Moving a relative with memory loss into residential care is an extremely difficult emotional task. Sometimes families have doubts for many years about whether relocation was the right decision. This article helps you understand why it’s difficult and offers some tips to make the day go more smoothly for both you and your relative.

Why is it difficult?

  • Media depictions of long-term care. Abuses in nursing homes or assisted living facilities are headline grabbers. It is a rare story that features the millions of caring, positive staff, the innovative programs and the happy moments of life in residential care.
  • Wedding vows that include ‘in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.’ Many spouses feel they are violating their marriage vows by moving their partner to residential care.
  • “My mother cared for me. Now it is my turn to care for her.” Raising children and caring for a parent with dementia are not equivalent, for many reasons, even though some of the tasks are similar.
  • Old promises. Unfortunately, we can never predict exactly what life will bring, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s or small strokes are among the things that no one wants to think about. We may have made promises that we simply cannot keep.
  • Family or friends who criticize. Sometimes people around us reinforce the guilt and pain with insensitive comments, or with their beliefs (even though they are not the ones providing 24-hour care). You are the only one who knows what you can or cannot do and what is best for your relative AND you.
  • Moving symbolizes the decline of the person. For many family members, this move is a very powerful symbol of the disease progressing and the person slipping away.
  • Feelings of failure. Many families feel their relative is getting worse because they have not tried hard enough. But many forms of dementia worsen over time, despite our best efforts.

Keeping the following in mind may help you cope with your feelings on moving day and beyond.

  • You are not alone. Most families find this one of the hardest, most painful decisions they have ever made.
  • There are no clear rights and wrongs when it comes to the care of a person with memory loss. If you weigh the pros and cons of various alternatives, you will probably find that there is no totally positive outcome. You may feel you are making the least negative choice of all your options.
  • Know that caregiving does not end at the door of the residential care setting. You are still a caregiver, though your tasks may be different. Also, be aware that stress levels do not necessarily decrease with a move. You may find that you are still stressed, but the stresses are different.
  • Your relative’s adjustment may take months. If you have moved in the past, you know that it can take a long time to adjust to a new place and new people. It commonly takes a person with memory loss longer to adjust to living with others in an unfamiliar place and a new routine. Give it time.
  • “No one can care for her as well as I have.” Caregivers often say this, and it’s often true. You won’t find one-on-one care in residential settings. On the other hand, some people with memory loss actually function better and feel better in a setting with more people and activities, and when caring, consistent staff are available.

You may feel overwhelmed and sad the day you move a relative. Here are some ways to make “the hardest day” a bit less difficult:

  • Ask a friend or relative to come along for the move. Although the residence’s staff will help you and your relative get settled, someone familiar can be comforting. Harriet’s friend Gladys was able to chat with Harriet’s mother, answer her questions, walk around with her, and generally engage her. Harriet had all she could do to handle the arrangements and cope with her own feelings.
  • Dedicate the entire day to moving. Although the physical move-in may not take all day, you may find that getting your relative settled may require more of your time and attention than you planned. If possible, don’t schedule other appointments.
  • Ask for privacy if you need it. As Harriet was putting away her mother’s things, she became tearful. She was very appreciative when the move-in coordinator asked if she would like to go to the family room for some privacy. After a few minutes by herself, she was able to return to her mother’s room and continue moving in her mother’s clothing and personal items.
  • Ask for assistance with your departure. It is very common to be concerned about how to leave your relative on the first day. Staff can be quite creative in supporting you. When Harriet’s mother insisted on going with her, a staff member asked them to join her for a cup of coffee. The staff person engaged Harriet’s mother in conversation and as she began to relax, Harriet excused herself, saying she would be back shortly, and left for the day.
  • Plan something to do after you leave your relative at her new residence. Take time for yourself during the transition to a new era of caregiving. You have spent a great deal of time and energy caring for her and planning this move. Now plan something you will enjoy—a bath, dinner with a friend, a walk, etc.

Moving a relative with memory loss is the end of a long process of research and preparation. You can find much more about the steps in the process in our book, Moving a Relative with Memory Loss: A Family Caregiver’s Guide

Beth Spencer and Laurie White