I am delighted to share with you this article written by my friend Alejandra Roca of Redfin. While helping her mother move into a retirement home, she spent many days sorting through her mom's belongings and trying to figure out the most effective way to help her. Alejandra's guide covers all the bases: Decluttering & Downsizing, Handling Paperwork, Showing support, and what to do after the move. We hope you enjoy the read, and don't hesitate to reach out to us with questions - we know helping your loved ones through this transition can be a difficult time for everyone involved. Xoxo, Elsa
Senior Guide for Decluttering and Feeling at Home in a Retirement Home
Adjusting to life in a retirement home can be tough – it involves big changes, like leaving behind a home and all the memories it contains, as well as the feeling of losing a measure of freedom. Psychologists say that even positive changes can be as hard to adapt to as negative ones are, but you can help your loved one make a smooth transition.
Preparing Your Loved One – and Yourself – for a Move to a Retirement Home
Before your parent, family member or friend moves into a retirement home or assisted-living facility, everyone involved needs to know what to expect. Sharing the timetable with your loved one can take some of the uncertainty away, so make sure that everyone involved knows when to start packing, when the move will occur, and when you’ll come to your loved one’s new home to help with the transition.
Also, keep in mind:
- This type of move can involve significant downsizing that requires you to put your organizational skills to the test.
- Your loved one may have mixed feelings about the move, and he or she may be reluctant to make such a big change.
- Your attitude about the process, and the way you handle the situation, can have a big impact on how easy (or how difficult) it is on your loved one.
Set Firm Dates
Create a calendar to share with your loved one and others involved in the move. Pick dates for:
- Downsizing and packing
- Charity pick-ups, a garage or estate sale, or trash pick-up
- Booking a moving truck or asking friends and family come to help
- Moving day
- Unpacking boxes and setting up the new place
Decluttering and Downsizing
Packing is stressful no matter how you look at it. Take it slowly (and start early, if that’s what it takes) to make things easier on your parent, friend or family member. Remember that your loved one’s participation can help him or her feel in control, which can minimize anxiety and quell nervousness about the big move – but also remember that this is a big job, and too much at once can be overwhelming. Try to keep packing, sorting and organizing confined to less than a couple of hours per day, and make it a sociable experience. If your loved one wants to stop and reminisce, join in; it’s not going to hurt anything.
If the person who’s moving has a lot of stuff (furniture, keepsakes, and other things that can’t come along), there’s a big decision on the horizon. He or she will have to decide whether to put everything in storage, hold a yard sale, or divide items between family members. This should definitely be your loved one’s decision – we’re talking about his or her belongings, not yours (think about how you’d feel if someone suddenly took the reins and dictated what was going to happen to your stuff).
Together, you can categorize each item and decide what your family member, parent or friend will take, store, donate or sell. Storage may be the best option, at least psychologically speaking, for your loved one. He or she still owns the furniture, mementos and other items, which can make adjusting to the retirement home that much easier.
You can usually get rid of old and useless items, like old bills and paperwork that’s no longer necessary, but be on the lookout for important documents that you and your loved one must keep, such as:
- Birth certificates
- Diplomas and degrees
- Financial documents
- Medical records
- Military records
- Powers of attorney
Keep all the important documents in a central location, and let other family members know where it is so nobody gets the wrong idea or feels left out of the process. Try to put it all somewhere neutral, like a safe deposit box.
If your loved one is okay with it, have adult children claim their own (but only their own!) keepsakes during the process. Old sports trophies, high school yearbooks and other items can go home with their owners to make things easier for everyone.
Pro tip: Sort before you start packing. Go through each room with colored tags to mark items for their final destinations. Remember that seniors can – and should – bring mementos and keepsakes to his or her new place so it feels like home.
If your loved one has pets, you’ll have to make arrangements for them, too. Let your parent, family member or friend decide where they’ll go, if possible; having no say in what happens to a beloved pet can be incredibly traumatic.
What if You Can’t Get Your Loved One to Part With Items?
Many people don’t want to let go of things they feel are important. If it’s absolutely necessary (like when storage isn’t an option), you can try:
- Talking to an antique dealer to find out how much items are worth. Sometimes a dollar figure can make a big difference in a person’s decision-making process.
- Hiring a professional organizer. If you’re too close to the situation and your help becomes frustrating for your loved one, it might be best to bring in an impartial third party who’s used to helping people let go.
- Letting your loved one know where the items will go and that they’ll be treasured. This is especially important with things tied to the family legacy, like old documents and photos.
Handle the Paperwork
You may need to change your loved one’s address, transfer utilities to someone else’s name, or finalize registration at your friend or family member’s retirement home or assisted living facility. Make sure you tackle each of these issues early so you’re not scrambling later. Don’t forget to update the address for your loved one’s:
- Bank accounts
- Credit card accounts
- Driver’s license and vehicle registration
- Insurance policies
- Investment and retirement accounts
- Medicare and Social Security
- Newspaper and magazine registrations
- Voter registration
After the Move
Adjusting to a new environment, particularly if it’s a lot different than the old one, can take weeks or months. Your loved one needs plenty of time to settle in, get to know people (including caregivers) and start to feel at home, so don’t try to rush the process. Everyone reacts differently; where one person may feel relief at not having to maintain a big house alone, another might feel a little lost and miss their home, friends and belongings.
Here’s how you can help.
Understand That the Move Represents a Loss
As an adult child, friend or family member, it’s easy to look at your loved one’s move as a “fresh start.” He or she will have cooked meals, nothing to clean and friends living right next door.
Your loved one might see that, too, but he or she is also mourning the loss of a home, belongings and community – and at the same time, the realization that old age or health issues has necessitated the move is sinking in. Avoid trying to force your family member or friend into the new social scene, too. Making new friends and getting comfortable takes time.
Be kind, patient and understanding with your loved one. Remember that you, too, will one day be in a similar situation.
Make Memories and Continuity a Priority
Find a shelf, cabinet or drawer where your loved one can easily access photo albums and other mementos. Hang his or her favorite pieces of art on the walls, and try to set up the space so it’s comfortable and homey. If your loved one has a favorite recliner, a family heirloom or other important items, make room for them.
If your loved one wants new items, like a flat-screen TV or something that will make the space more enjoyable, go for it – sometimes having something shiny and new makes the transition easier.
Show Support and Visit Often
Familiar faces can make living in a new place a lot easier, so visit as often as you can (or as often as your loved one wants you to). If you can’t visit, see if someone can help your loved one Skype or FaceTime you, or make regular phone calls to check up on him or her.
Refer to the new place as “home,” not “the home” or anything else. The way you talk about the assisted living facility will impact the way your parent, family member or friend feels about it, and it’s important that you don’t forget how powerful that can be.