When It’s Time to Move Mom or Dad: Coping with Transfer Trauma

People of all ages can experience transfer trauma (or relocation stress syndrome) when moving to a new home. But the elderly can be particularly susceptible, with severe physical and psychological effects. As a caregiver or caretaker of a loved one, it’s important that you learn about the signs and potential repercussions of transfer trauma so that the impact can be minimized or prevented altogether.

Transfer trauma may occur when an older person is moved from their home to a long-term-care facility or when they are relocated within the same facility. Symptoms can show up before and during a move, as well as for several months afterward, and will vary in severity depending upon the individual and their circumstances.

3 Types of Symptoms

Tracy Green Mintz, LCSW, an expert in relocation stress syndrome, has categorized the symptoms into three clusters: mood, behavior and physiology. Elderly people who are suffering from cognitive impairment, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, are prone to more serious symptoms. For such patients, the loneliness and confusion that stem from being disoriented in a new environment tend to exacerbate the situation.

Mood symptoms come on because the senior doesn’t know or understand what’s happening to them. Common feelings experienced by a person with transfer trauma include:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Tearfulness

A number of challenging behaviors may also be exhibited, such as:

  • Combativeness
  • Screaming
  • Complaining
  • Wandering off
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Refusing care and not taking medications
  • Drug seeking
  • Drinking or smoking

Typical physiological symptoms include:

  • Mental confusion
  • Falling
  • Increased pain
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sleeplessness
  • Poor appetite
  • Indigestion or nausea
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

Left untreated, relocation stress can take a physical toll and lead to long-term debilitating effects. A senior’s ability to function may permanently decrease, and studies have shown that the mortality rate of patients with relocation stress can triple if caregivers don’t properly address the issue.

Assessing the Risks

Risks are involved with any major move late in life, but certain situations can be more danger-prone than others. As one example, elderly patients who move from their homes to a residential facility are more vulnerable than those who simply switch rooms where they have been living for some time. Relocation can be especially difficult for those who believe they are still capable of living independently and thus don’t see the need for the move. For this reason, Alzheimer’s patients are significantly more at risk, as their memory loss can inhibit their ability to understand why they have been moved.

While certain people are definitely more susceptible, it’s critical to understand that relocation stress syndrome can affect anyone. Since many of the symptoms highlighted above do not specifically point to transfer trauma, it’s imperative that family members remain aware of this potentially devastating issue whenever planning a move.

Preventing Transfer Trauma

The “how” of preventing relocation stress syndrome relates to the most common cause of move-related suffering: loss of control over one’s own life. When this is successfully addressed, seniors have shown an increased ability to move. When it comes to your loved one, some key actions that you can take to minimize trauma include:

  • Involving the senior in decision-making and planning
  • Providing them with an opportunity to ask questions and discuss concerns
  • Honoring their preferences and allowing them to maintain control
  • Maintaining their daily routine as much as possible.
  • Safeguarding their personal possessions
  • Involving them in setting up their new room or apartment
  • Making their new home resemble the old one as much as possible
  • Helping them become acclimated to their new surroundings

If they are not able to actively participate, it’s important that you remain attentive to their concerns. Being an active listener and answering questions can be a tremendous help in preventing or alleviating the confusion that can come with moving homes. It’s also helpful to spend ample time with them while they are acclimating to their new environment. The presence of familiar faces can help them adjust to their new homes and reduce stress.

Finally, it’s important to understand that it takes time for a person to adjust to a new home. The amount of time varies based upon circumstances, but it generally takes at least 30 days for someone to feel fully at home in a new environment. You can help ease the adjustment process by providing the staff with information about your loved one’s background, habits, preferences and routines, and incorporating them as much as possible into their new home.