Adjusting to Assisted Living: A 10-Step Plan

senior men drinking
All Rights Reserved

Choosing to move to an assisted living community is a big decision, and moving itself is a complex and tiring process. So what happens next should be the easy part, right? Well, yes and no. If you've been living with family or on your own in a place that's been home for a long time, moving to a group-living setting can take some getting used to.

The good news is that older adults who move into an assisted living residence often adapt much faster than they or their families expect. In fact, it's common for new residents to be surprised by how much they like their new home, and even to express the wish that they'd made the decision to move earlier.

Still, there's no question that settling into a new life requires some effort and adjustment, and that there are ways to help ensure a successful transition. Here's a ten-step plan to make the adjustment to assisted living as seamless as possible.

1. Bring What's Meaningful to You.

So your favorite armchair isn't a thing of beauty, and your kids think moving is the perfect chance to replace it. But it's familiar, and comfortable -- and you know sitting in it doesn't hurt your back. Those are good enough reasons to bring it, says senior moving expert Donna Quinn Robbins. While other people might be focused on making your new home look as pretty as possible, that may not matter as much to you -- and it's you who's going to be living there. More important, when your surroundings are new and unfamiliar, it may help to be surrounded by the things you're used to. Robbins tells the story of a woman whose kids could not understand why she insisted on bringing an old bookcase and vanity until she explained that her father had made the bookcase for her, and sitting at her vanity brought back memories of her youth. "All she wanted was things that made her feel good, and that she remembered," says Robbins.

SEE ALSO: Find Assisted Living Near You

2. Organize Your Belongings so They're Easy to Find

When you've lived in the same place for a long time, you're often on autopilot when it comes to finding things. The screwdriver? Bottom drawer on the right in the kitchen. It can be disorienting if you have to hunt around every time you need a pen or the aspirin. One tip from Donna Quinn Robbins is to move dressers, nightstands, and desks with everything in them, so things stay exactly as they were. Take drawers out to lighten the load if necessary, but don't pack and unpack the contents, she advises, as it will inevitably result in things being misplaced.

3. Help Make Mealtime a Social Success

Dining with other residents is one of the first ways you or your loved one will meet people after moving to a new assisted living community. But if you're used to eating on your own, it can feel daunting the first few times you walk into the dining room. One way to make this experience easier is to ask staff to introduce you to other residents or to seat you with friendly, outgoing people likely to engage and make introductions. If you're helping a family member move into a new community, you might join her for the first couple of meals to help her ease into it. "If you go to dinner with her, then the meal is less about her and more about you getting to eat with her," said one community member who found this strategy helpful.

4. Keep Mementos Handy for Sharing

Even if space is tight, it's worth bringing photo albums, scrapbooks, and videos of family and friends, which can help bridge the gap between past and present. If you're helping a loved one move out of a longtime home, consider making a videotape before you pack up -- one that documents their house, garden, even the neighborhood. When you make new friends, you'll enjoy showing them photos of your family or scrapbooks documenting travels.

5. Get to Know the Medical Staff

If you or your loved one has moved to assisted living because of medical problems, it's important to get connected right away with the doctors, nurses, and other staff available at the community. Make sure medical records and prescriptions are transferred over, and find out whom to talk to if you (or your loved one) experience health problems or need ongoing services, such as physical therapy.

SEE ALSO: Find Assisted Living Near You

6. Be Proactive About Pain Management and Depression

Often a move to assisted living comes when chronic health problems, isolation, and other issues have begun to make it hard for you or your loved one to continue living independently. However, with all the practical issues involved in making the move, little attention may be paid to these underlying issues for a while. That's something to watch out for and fix, because depression, chronic pain, and other physical issues can prevent new residents from joining in the group activities, meals, and social life that are so important to successful adjustment, experts say. Bring depression symptoms and pain issues to the attention of doctors and staff and make sure they're addressed, even if that requires repeated consultations. Feeling your best is key to taking advantage of all that assisted living has to offer.

7. Learn Who's Who

Getting to know the staff in your new assisted living community is important, because these are the folks who make everything happen. If there's a new-resident orientation, take advantage of it. Find out who's responsible for what, so you know whom to ask for help when you need it. For example, the facilities manager or other staff member can help you with a tight deadbolt or sticky window, while the activity director can orient you to the social events that might interest you.

8. Join In

So you're not a "joiner." Neither are most of us. But attending meals and participating in social activities will help you adjust much faster -- and feel happier -- than sitting in your room or apartment. Take walks around the grounds, join in a card game or class, even volunteer your services if you have a skill to contribute. Do you play the piano? Offer to play a few tunes after dinner. Is there someone even newer than you? Introduce yourself and show her around.

9. Pay Attention to Sleep Issues

Between half and 75 percent of seniors have sleep issues, often a product of aging and health problems such as sleep apnea. And, of course, sleep problems may be exacerbated when you're going to bed and waking up in an unfamiliar place. Evaluate your new quarters for "sleep hygiene" issues such as temperature, light, and noise. Blackout curtains or shades may be necessary to block light, and earplugs or an ambient sound machine may be helpful if the environment is noisier -- or quieter -- than you or your loved one is used to. For those with arthritis, an extra mattress pad or sheet of foam may ease discomfort from a too-hard bed. A fan can do double-duty by cooling the air and providing background noise. Lastly, don't forget that getting exercise and staying active during the day both do wonders for sound sleep at night. Naps are not your friend.

10. Understand and Accept Feelings

Even when you can appreciate the benefits of moving to assisted living, you're still going to feel some regret and sadness at saying good-bye to your old home. After all, moving away from a home filled with memories is a loss. And to heal a loss, it's important to mourn, not to try to push feelings away, experts say. If it's your family member who's expressing sadness at a move to assisted living, you can help him or her most by listening and expressing your sympathy and understanding, says Ken Robbins, MD, a professor of psychiatry and medical advisor. If your loved one says she wishes she could go home, let her know you wish she could go home too, but her doctor feels she's safer in assisted living. "Then gently change the subject," Robbins advises. Keep in mind that how you feel in the first days and weeks is not how you're going to feel forever. Everyone gets flummoxed and disoriented by a move, and it simply takes time before those feelings fade. Lastly, don't get down on yourself if you think you're not adjusting fast enough. Some people find it easy to get out and meet new people; others are more introverted and slower to warm up to new experiences. Go easy on yourself and take it at your own pace.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio