Assisted Living

10/13/2023 | By Terri L. Jones

If you’re planning a move for a senior loved one, consider these steps to help them avoid transfer trauma.

My aunt was in the beginning stages of dementia when her sons moved her and my uncle, who had cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, to a nursing home. They both were miserable, refused to participate in activities or get to know other residents, and packed a bag every day to go home. Their inability to adjust to their new environment caused them to become depressed and ultimately lose their will to live. My aunt died from a massive stroke within a year of their move, and my uncle succumbed to his illnesses just two months later.

What is transfer trauma?

While everyone experiences stress when they move, imagine how hard it would be if you had no control over where you were going or any idea what to expect when you got there. Known as transfer trauma, this severe anxiety and depression as a result of a move can occur when seniors, particularly those with cognitive impairments, transition from home or hospital to a long-term care facility, from one facility to another, or simply from one room to another within the same facility.

What are the effects?

Transfer trauma, which can last from a few weeks to a few months, is characterized by confusion, depression, restlessness, inability to focus, poor hygiene, changes in eating and sleeping habits, stomach problems, headaches, and more. Ultimately, this stress may result in a decline in physical health and emotional well-being and even lead to premature death, as in my aunt’s case.

How can you prevent or minimize it?

A sad senior Asian man. Image by Imtmphoto. Article on transfer trauma.

The best way to try to prevent – or at least minimize – transfer trauma is to involve your loved one in the process as much as possible. Retaining some sense of control over their life can go a long way in helping seniors adjust to and be happy in their new surroundings.

Communicate with your loved one about why they need to move. Before you pack up the truck, take them on a tour of the facility and introduce them to staff and other residents. Perhaps engage them in some activities there. According to AARP, it’s beneficial to focus on the positive aspects of the move, such as opportunities for social activity, being closer to family, or staying safe.

Other steps to ease the transition:

  • Be sure the facility’s staff will monitor how your family member is dealing with the move. They should also have a protocol in place to address transfer trauma if they observe signs.
  • Encourage seniors to get involved in activities. Because a family member’s prompting may not be sufficient, many facilities assign a “mentor” to new residents to orient them to the facility, introduce them to other residents, and help integrate them into their new community.
  • Allow seniors to have as much autonomy as possible, making decisions like what to bring to their new home, what to wear, what to eat, and which activities to participate in.
  • Make their new space feel like home with family photos and favorite knickknacks or furniture if appropriate.
  • Visit your family member as often as you can, especially during the transition. A familiar face in the midst of their currently strange surroundings will calm them and make them feel more comfortable. Assure them that despite the change in their living arrangement, your relationship will remain the same.

When you prepare your loved one for a move, give them some control, and take other steps to ease the transition, you can help minimize transfer trauma.

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones