Moving to an assisted living facility, even when voluntary, can be hard for your senior.
How can family members help loved ones adjust to assisted living? It is the question I put to Jennifer Sallis, who lived 1,000 miles from her mom, and still helped her to adjust. (Jump to Lessons Learned)
I never met Carol Sallis, but Jennifer paints a joyous picture of her mother. Born and raised on a farm in Wisconsin, Carol was interested in the people and places surrounding her life. Whether it was teaching Sunday school, raising her blended family, spending two years overseas volunteering with her husband, or taking world trips during retirement, Carol connected with others in a thoughtful way.
To Jennifer, this ability to connect was key to her mother’s adjustment to assisted living, and later, to a nursing home. At the nursing home one-day, Jennifer noticed how her mother made sure to introduce her to the other ladies at the dining table. As the meal ended, Carol looked around and said quietly to Jennifer: ‘Isn’t that something – we all have a story, each one of us here has a story.’ Carol didn’t categorize people. She had a quiet confidence to take conversations beyond hello.
Helping to foster connections, especially with staff, was important to Jennifer. Following the death of her husband in 2009, Carol made the decision to move into assisted living and chose a facility in her Wisconsin hometown. This was also Jennifer’s hometown where an extended network of cousins, neighbors and church members would keep her mother from feeling isolated.
Extended family allows you to create family out of non-family.
This is the life lesson Jennifer learned from her mother and it carried over into assisted and nursing home living. Unable to be onsite at a moment’s notice, her mother’s dependent relationship with staff meant that Jennifer best supported her by partnering with staff as needed, yet maintaining an objective eye on the quality of care, meals and overall living. Carol capably managed relationships with the staff and Jennifer respected that dynamic. Taking her mother’s lead, Jennifer would try to get to know staff when she visited. What were their names? Did they have family? Did they live locally? Did they know the same people? Caregivers became part of Carol’s extended family.
The Family’s Role in Assisted Living
Jennifer’s blended family includes two older brothers and a sister. None lived locally, yet contributed to Carol’s wellbeing by writing letters, calling and occasional visits. However, as Carol’s primary point person and eventually her healthcare proxy, Jennifer traveled to Wisconsin 3-4 times a year. With a full-time job in New Jersey, a daily 100-mile commute, a husband, and only three weeks of annual vacation, these trips could be tiring but Jennifer believed in “showing up, being present.” Almost every evening from New Jersey, she would touch base with her mother by phone, a ritual they both enjoyed. With staff help, they would occasionally speak via skype. As needed, Carol, Jennifer, and head of staff reviewed Carol’s care plan.
At each visit, Jennifer stayed in her mother’s assisted living apartment and when possible, invited friends and family over for get-togethers. Jennifer always took the lead from Carol, respecting her wishes and boundaries. For example, staff continued to provide medicine, toileting and dressing. Jennifer ate meals in the common dining room and developed relationships with her mother’s table mates, giving her additional insight to her mother’s well-being.
Carol enjoyed five years in her assisted living experience but in 2015 her health began to fail. That year, in addition to ten international business trips, Jennifer made seven trips to Wisconsin. These visits were wrapped around her mother’s failing health, saying goodbye to assisted living staff, and meeting new staff in the nursing home. Jennifer’s final visits involved emptying Carol’s assisted living apartment. Always a team, Jennifer kept her mother abreast of the moving process, giving Carol an empowered role without overwhelming her. Carol could continue to share stories – some based on the items being moved from her apartment – and take an interest in her new nursing home environment.
“I remember my mother as I grew up, surrounded by things of the past such as genealogy or family heirloom items but taking an active interest in the present. I believe I helped her maintain that,” Jennifer said. And when it was done she treasured being told by her mother, “Thank you so much. You have no idea how much it means, all you’ve done for me.” The following February her mother passed away.
- Moving your loved one to assisted living or a nursing home closer to you may be easier for you as caregiver, but may not be the best thing for them. Be realistic about the time you have for visits and activities. Being closer to extended family in a familiar environment may be the better choice.
- When you live far away, staff is a key part of extended family for your loved one. Don’t be intimidated by this dynamic, just support it. Based on Jennifer’s experience, she was grateful for it. As a precaution, obtain the facility’s written grievance procedure before moving so you would know what to do if something really went wrong.
- When you’re visiting every few months, it’s important to never assume. Listen more than you talk and read into the situation before saying anything.
- If staff or facility is not doing something the way you would do it, let it go if your loved one is safe. Or let your loved one correct them. If you don’t insert yourself into the relationship, they can bond and learn to work together.
- Learn about the people caring for your loved one, give them insight so they can provide care in the best possible manner. Learn about the lives of the caregivers and share with your loved one so they have a connection. Make a family where you are.
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.