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When Elderly Parents Can't Live At Home

Updated: May 3, 2018

We are experiencing significant improvements in our longevity. And yet, the situation often presents itself when the elderly can no longer safely care for themselves in their home. Some people plan ahead for the day when alternative living accommodations such as moving to an assisted living facility or a nursing home would need to be explored. Sometimes, no planning has taken place.

Regardless of the amount of planning, family members often overlook the meaning of the losses that occur when the elderly have to move; many losses that occur in rapid succession. Our parents will grieve for the loss of their home and all that it symbolizes, and need to mourn. But sometimes, grieving is delayed, or never experienced. It is easy to understand why this occurs.

The immediate focus at the time of moving is for the individual’s physical safety. This requires considerable time spent mulling over logistical arrangements, such as interviewing and selecting the most suitable place for the elderly parents to live, sorting through decades of acquired items and helping them make decisions as to what to keep and discard.

Secondly, mourning may be masked as physical ailments. How often have we heard stories about World War II veterans or concentration camp survivors never speaking about their emotionally traumatic wartime experiences? Many of today’s elderly grew up in an error in which the common practice was to not appear weak and instead stuff one’s feelings rather than discuss them. Inexperience with expressing grief reactions can be a challenge for today's senior citizens. But awareness of this issue can provide an opportunity for their extended families.

Family members can do the following to help their loved ones at this important junction in their lives:

1. Be aware that physical ailments and dementia may mask the true underlying cause, which is unexpressed despair following the loss of everything familiar to them in their home and community.

2. Acknowledge the elderly person’s nonverbal behavior. Is he walking more hunched over or slower than before? Is her normally tidy appearance becoming unkempt?

3. Be honest. Always be honest. But also be encouragingly realistic.

4. Don’t shy away from their desire to express angry feelings and complaints. Remember that the complaint probably has little to do with you and more about their feelings of powerlessness or loss.

5. Listen and respond to the emotion behind the words that they speak. Validating their feelings (even if you don’t agree with their point of view) will enable them to open up more with you and be better able to cope with their negative emotions.

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