When You Help Move Mom or Dad into Assisted Living

By Theresa Pichelmeyer, Valley VNA President & CEO


We often feel guilty in the process of planning and moving our aging parents(s) into an assisted living community. Family and societal pressures have wrongly characterized these moves as “abandonment” or “disloyalty” or “laziness.” Why do these feelings of guilt arise and how can we shape a healthier, more peaceful and realistic perspective?

The Reality of Your New Role

As grown children, we continue to rely on our parents for decades as caregivers, problem-solvers, and “safe shelter in a storm.” Gradually, things begin to change and we realize this role is shifting. A fix-it project in the home workshop used to be run by dad and you were the assistant. Now he stands back and watches you take the lead. (It is a very powerful moment when you realize what just happened!) Or you start to go to medical appointments with mom to take notes and be her advocate, something she always did for you.

Many adult children find this role reversal unnerving. They feel vulnerable because they’ve lost some feelings of stability and normalcy. It is a natural evolution of almost every family on the globe to begin caretaking for aging parents, and it would be wrong to assume otherwise. Frailty, illness, or dementia will continue regardless of your attempts to stop their progression. As your relationship changes, don’t try to “fix” issues of aging. You will be overwhelmed by feelings of failure and aggravation if you strive to make everything the way it used to be.

With proper help, you can keep your parents’ options open. It’s difficult to predict the progression of natural aging or a chronic disease, and a fall or health emergency at home immediately narrows your family’s options for getting them care in a setting of their choice. A decision to help mom and dad move into a safe, comfortable apartment is a decision to accept this very serious adult reality. Do not wait for a broken hip to make all the decisions for you.

When It Feels Like You Are “Giving Up”

Moving your parents may feel like a public acknowledgement that you no longer have the ability or the loyalty to care for them yourself. This is especially true when others also see the move will help lighten your caregiving load. And why shouldn’t it? Few aging parents or spouses would want their adult children or mate to give up living any kind of life apart from their needs. If they do, reject that premise as unfair and unrealistic.

Just as your parents cared for you when you were young, you are doing your best with the information and resources you have. Remember, your mom and dad taught you many of the life skills you are using to navigate this big change, and your commitment to your parents is a direct result of their commitment to you.

Even after a decision is made, doubts can linger over whether your parent’s new home is the best choice. Did you tour and ask plenty of questions? Was it clean? Have you checked the facility’s state record for infractions? Did you speak to people around town and get their opinions? Anyone who has been through this arduous process knows it’s not for the faint-of-heart—it’s hardly “giving up,” more like “stepping up.”

But I Promised Her

“I promised her I’d never put her in a home.” Ask yourself what were you really saying when you made that promise. Were you saying you would always care for your mom, never abandon her, and keep her at the heart of the family she helped form? Your mom may have also been working off a set of outdated impressions—perhaps a 1970s-style nursing home without the activities, décor, and dining options of today’s senior living communities.

The decision to help your mom find a new safe place to live is in keeping with the spirit of the promise you made to her. In fact, it will go a long way to preserve a loving mother-child relationship. You won’t be exhausted and exasperated from the demands of caretaking and can once again visit her at home for the simple pleasure of a cup of coffee, a conversation, or a card game.

What Do I Do Now?

After mom and dad move to their new home, your responsibilities change but do not evaporate. Continue to advocate for your parents and be visible to other residents and staff. Visit them and bring the kids and grandkids. Help decorate their new apartment with meaningful furniture and pictures from their prior home. Introduce them to residents and staff, especially if they’ve become isolated in their previous home due to illness or immobility. They may complain. Try not to engage and redirect the conversation the best you can.

Your visits together will no longer be focused on the “to do” list of mowing the lawn, grocery shopping, or the more intimate duties of bathing, dressing, and toileting. When you share the care, it frees you up to enjoy your parents without being physically and emotionally worn out. Joy can once again blossom in your relationship; and with this newfound joy, let the guilt slip away.