Helping a Parent Downsize Before a Move to an Assisted Living Facility

by Paige Estigarribia

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As a parent ages, you may find the notion of an assisted living facility coming up more often. But how do you know that it's time for that kind of move? And how do you begin to downsize for this transition?

To answer some of our questions about transitioning to an assisted living facility, we reached out to Carol Bradley Bursack of Minding Our Elders. She offered some excellent advice for anyone attempting to downsize before moving to an assisted living facility.

Q: What are some of the first signs you might notice if you're considering assisted living for a parent?

Ms. Bursack: Loneliness is number one. Socialization is important for both mental and physical health. Many older people have enjoyed their own homes for decades but now a spouse has died, the neighbors have gradually changed to younger people who are busy with their own lives, and the safety of the neighborhood may in doubt in some cases.

Additionally, not driving, not eating well because fixing meals is too much of an effort, short term memory issues, frequent falls, mild confusion and/or the inability to make good decisions to avoid being taken advantage of may be precursors to the move to assisted living.

Q: What should you do if your parents are resistant to moving to an assisted living facility?

Ms. Bursack: It's not unusual for people to resist the move to assisted living or anywhere else. Change is hard for most people and it's doubly hard for seniors who are already having to give up many things because their bodies are starting to rebel.

I generally advise people to start the process gently if there's time. See if your parents have any friends who've made the move to assisted living. If so, take them to visit these friends, so your parents see what assisted living can be like. If you aren't that fortunate, a tour of several local senior living places is a good idea.

Stressing the increased safety of communal living as well as the ability to go shopping and do other things that are now a struggle for them can help.

If your parents finally make the move, don't expect them to be thrilled right away. Allow for adjustment time. Most (not all) elders who've made a move to a nice assisted living arrangement begin to feel safe and many start to enjoy the social life after a time. Don't be too demanding but try to see that they have a chance to go on outings and that they can take part in activities that they may like. Talk with the social director ahead of time, letting this person know about your parents attitudes and their likes and dislikes.

Stay connected. Go to the facility and have dinner with them. Ask to meet their new friends. What is right is different for everyone, but do expect resistance at first and even anger. Understand that they are going through a difficult change, but with time, it will likely turn out to be a good move.

Q: What are some of the essentials that you most want to keep with them when considering this type of downsize?

Ms. Bursack: Definitely keep photos and collectibles that help recollect their lives as well as home furnishings such as a bedspread (unless they want a new one), their own bed pillow, and other bedroom things that may help with comfortable sleep. Not every assisted living facility will be the same, but the idea is to preserve the past while embracing the positive things about their new home.

I also ask adult children or other relatives to keep some belongings in their homes if possible so that if your loved one asks for something you may be able to produce it. I kept Christmas ornaments, seasonal clothing changes, and other things that I could switch out in my elders rooms for holidays or just to refresh their rooms or wardrobes. You want their rooms to be homey and have the marks of their lives on them rather than having a sterile, hotel atmosphere.

Q: How should you discuss downsizing? And when?

Ms. Bursack: In most cases, it's best to treat all aging issues as ongoing discussions along with what dress to wear to a wedding and where the family will have the next Christmas gathering. In other words, this is just a natural part of conversation that covers an ongoing time frame. That way it's not so much like having "the talk" as it is simply a part of living life.

General questions such as, "Mom, if you had your choice of all living arrangements as you age, what would you prefer?" and "If that didnt work out, what would be your second choice?" are good starting points.

If you are beyond this time frame, then you simply have to start where you are. For instance, your mom has some new health issues and is not safe in her home. Then, a good way to start is to say, "Mom, you know that you need more help and I have to work full time. Should we look at hiring in-home care for now and then we could start investigating area assisted living facilities to see what is best for later?"

The bottom line is that whenever possible the elder should have as much to say in the living arrangement as possible. Sometimes time isn't on your side and you have to be more firm, stating that you want their safety above all and the current living situation is unsafe. Look at assisted living on your own if necessary and then ask the social worker if he or she can give you advice on convincing your parents to make the move. Whenever possible, let the elders choose. Your parents dont give up the rights of being an adult simply because they are aging.

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Q: What are some things most people forget to talk about when the time for downsizing arrives?

Ms. Bursack: They forget to talk about and empathize with their loved ones about the pain of leaving a lifetime of belongings and memories behind. Therefore, people need to discuss the fact that downsizing has two sides. It's hard to let go of a lifetime of keepsakes and even just junk, but it's also freeing to not have a lot of "stuff" holding you down and keeping you from making new decisions.

Empathize. Offer sympathy. But also stress that there is hope for an enjoyable future in a safe new home with the chance to make new friends and enjoying new activities. Downsizing will present a mix of emotions and a lot of physical work. You need to acknowledge the pain of leaving a part of life behind as well as discuss the upcoming new way of living that everyone hopes will be enjoyable. Make room for tears as a normal part of change.

These types of changes can be difficult for both parents and children. Hopefully these tips have provided some insight on preparing a parent for an assisted living facility transition.

Reviewed September 2017

Carol Bradley Bursack is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. She runs award-winning websites at and On Twitter, follow Carol @mindingourelder and on Facebook: Minding Our Elders

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