Smooth Moves

Transitioning to a memory care community may be challenging. Here’s how to make it easier

Abigail Havens remembers the troubling updates from her mother’s friends. One afternoon, her mother had gotten lost driving to a restaurant where she’d eaten lunch regularly. On another day, her mother sounded confused when she called a local theater, where she often attended plays. 

Havens, whose name has been changed for privacy, needed to arrange help for her 73-year-old mother. But her mother was living alone in a large house in Libertyville, and Havens was living in New York City — 850 miles away.

Havens flew out to assess the situation firsthand. She initially hired a caregiving service, but her mother wouldn’t let the caregivers in the house. Her mom refused to use a walker, too, even though she was unstable on her feet. And then Havens discovered a mouse infestation.

She very quickly had to come to terms with the fact that her mother was no longer capable of living alone. 

The choice to move a loved one to a memory care community often weighs heavily on the decision-maker. They may struggle with feelings of guilt and sadness as they face the transition. And once a family has chosen to move their loved one, another decision begins: how to discuss the move with their loved one.

Making the move

Senior living experts recommend validating the individual’s feelings, while also discussing how a memory care community will be safer for them, providing a clean, supervised environment as well as meals, activities, and amenities.

Psychologist Sherrie All, PhD, is owner and director of the Chicago Center for Cognitive Wellness, a neuropsychology practice that offers assessment and treatment for people with cognitive decline. All suggests that when a family caregiver makes the decision to transition a loved one to a memory care community, they start talking about the move in small steps. 

“Some people are aware of their illness and are willing to make the move to memory care because they don’t want to be a burden on their family. For others, the truth may be distressing because, with their cognitive impairment, they are not aware that they are no longer functioning normally,” All says. 

She encourages loved ones to offer reassurance. “You might tell them that memory care is a great place where they will get the care they need. If they react with a sense of calm and peace, stay with that explanation. Tell everyone involved with the move to use the same phrase.”

Difficult decisions

Havens talked about the situation with her mother and her mother’s doctors, who agreed her mom needed more care. One of the doctors asked Havens’ mother to choose a date to move to an assisted living residence. Assisted living communities provide some support with daily living tasks but don’t specialize in caring for people with dementia.

On the day of the move, in February 2020, Havens’ aunt took her mother out for lunch and a manicure. During that time, Havens orchestrated moving a selectionof her mother’s belongings to the assisted living community.

“I knew she would not go willingly, but I felt so sad and heartbroken to have to trick her like that because I know my mom’s identity was tied to that four-bedroom house,” Havens says. “But all she did there was watch TV.”

Her mother reacted to the move by claiming she was fine and saying that she wanted to go home. Yet, within the first two weeks in assisted living, Havens’ mother walked outside on her own and crossed a busy road. After a doctor’s visit, her mother’s neurologist recommended that she move into memory care. 

Family dynamics

No matter how you make the transition, discussing the move with other family members might prove challenging. 

“I had to educate my family members,” Havens says. “They thought my mom was fine because they only had brief phone conversations with her, but I knew that she needed to be in a place where she was safe, comfortable, and had a richer social life beyond watching TV all day.”

To others facing the same situation, All says, “Be prepared to not be believed. You can argue until you are blue in the face, but this may be a disagreement that cannot be resolved. Just repeat that she has to be in a safe place.”

When a loved one finally makes the move into a memory care community, All encourages family members to keep any sadness and grief to themselves to help the person adjust to their new environment. “Don’t wear your feelings on your sleeve and push them onto people with dementia. They may disrupt their ability to adapt to the new setting,” All says.

Easing the adjustment

At many memory care communities, the staff rely on the resident’s loved ones to act as a bridge during the transition to the new setting.

Justine Villaruz, a memory care adviser at Arden Courts ProMedica Memory Care Community in Geneva, invites family members to fill out biographical information about incoming residents. This tells staff their interests and preferences so they can plan activities and a routine to best suit the resident. 

The person’s new living space should feel familiar and include meaningful items, including family photos, to comfort the new resident and provide a sense of self. “We want their space here to be a small version of their home life,” Villaruz says. 

Havens took a sabbatical of almost three months from her job in digital advertising for a large tech company to find a place for her mom and to sell the house. “I know that I did the right thing because my mom has more social engagement than she’s had in years, and that will slow the progression of her illness. She has nutritious, tasty meals and dedicated healthcare.”

Although the initial decision can be daunting, care partners feel relieved to see their loved one in a safe place. “They do eventually end up having peace of mind because they see their family member having a better quality of life,” Villaruz says.