Allowing them to control the controllable

When an older adult faces an upcoming residential move, well-meaning family members often feel compelled to take charge of move-related decisions such as the timing, the choice of new residence, the disposition of personal belongings — even the arrangement of furniture, closet contents, and artwork in the new home.  In our experience, this behavior nearly always stems from feelings of love and concern for the loved one’s well-being and safety, plus a bit of justifiable apprehension about their own time availability. However, this level of control can actually backfire.

The sheer number of decisions to be made can seem overwhelming to all parties concerned. But feeling pressure to accept many choices made by others can cause the person in transition to feel increasingly disrespected, helpless and vulnerable. Especially when coupled with other significant losses in areas such as health, independence, and/or personal relationships, it can contribute to a recognized medical condition called Transfer Trauma or Relocation Stress Syndrome (RSS). Observed in the first few months following a move, RSS symptoms include loneliness, depression, apprehension, anxiety, anger, and increased confusion.

Here are our recommendations for increasing the probability that a loved one will achieve the desired upgrade in quality of life after an upcoming move:

  1. From the get-go, help them focus on the positive things awaiting them on the other side of the move at least as much as the losses they are dealing with while getting ready.
  2. Ask often about their most important wishes and greatest concerns and pay close attention to their responses; make those topics a priority, and involve the person in decisions and planning related to them.
  3. Help them weigh the pros and cons of alternatives and consequences of choices; for lower priority decisions, present solutions by asking something like “if you did ________, it could help you by ________. Are you ok with handling it this way?”
  4. Honor their decisions, even if they are not the same ones you would make. (Remember, a big factor of independence is the right to make choices — even some “bad” ones!)
  5. Throughout the process, maintain the person’s daily routine as much as possible.

It’s true that declining cognitive ability can complicate matters. But especially during a difficult household move, one of the most meaningful gifts we can give our aging loved ones is recognition of their dignity by allowing them to continue controlling as many controllable aspects of their own lives as possible.