Transitioning to Assisted Living: Tips for Getting Through the Adjustment Period

My youngest sister left for college this month. I imagine she’s feeling like I did in those early days: nervous, excited, homesick, maybe even a little unsure of herself. Maybe she got lost trying to find the library or the registrar’s office. Maybe she’s having more fun than she thought was possible. The food is not as good as Mom’s, I’m sure, but it might not be all bad.

Transitioning to assisted living is an entirely different experience than going to college: Besides the obvious age gap, the length of stay is indefinite, and the purpose for being there is worlds apart from that of a young student. Still, some of the emotions (anxiety, excitement, homesickness) may be the same. Like going to college, moving into assisted living is a major life transition that will take time to adjust to, even if it was a decision amicably reached, even if the move will ultimately have a positive outcome.

From an outsider’s perspective, life in assisted living is full of opportunities and perks. Residents have the chance to meet new people, to ditch most of their daily chores, to participate in fitness classes, lectures, games, and outings, to have someone else do the cooking and cleaning. However, the move signifies a loss of independence and a need for care that is not easy to reconcile after years of self-sufficiency.

Family and friends supporting a senior who has moved to assisted living must remember this. They need to be respectful of the time it may take to adjust to this new place, this new way of living.

The transition may be equally challenging for those left behind. Sometimes, couples are separated when one needs care and the other stays home. Young grandchildren may wonder why they’re not going to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving anymore. Adult children who had moved a parent into their home will miss his or her presence there, even if caregiving had become overwhelming and stressful. On some level, everyone in the family will go through a period of adjustment following the transition.

Follow these tips to get you through those bumpy first days, weeks, or months:

  1. Before selecting an assisted living community, visit often so that the environment isn’t completely new upon arrival. After move-in, continue to visit your loved one regularly. Don’t fall off the face of the earth, thinking she needs time to settle in, or that he’ll be too busy to miss you. If she has dementia or Alzheimer’s, which has led to a lack of recognition, that’s not a reason to stop visiting; she’ll welcome seeing your familiar face even if she can’t say your name.
  2. Establish – or maintain – a routine. If you always visited Mom on Sundays, continue to do so. If Dad read the paper every morning at home, be sure to change his delivery address so he can still get the paper at his new location. It’s a great time to create new traditions and rituals too, even if they have to be adapted to the new setting. For ideas and inspiration, check out 10 Things to Do During An Assisted Living Visit.
  3. Don’t push your loved one to get involved in activities or socializing before they are ready to do so. Maybe none of the activities offered are of interest. Maybe he just needs more time to deal with the change of place before he’s ready to reach out and meet new people. Perhaps she has enough hobbies to pursue on her own – reading, writing letters, watching movies, art projects, Sudoku puzzles, chatting with friends on the phone – and doesn’t feel the need to participate in group programs. If you’re concerned that there are other reasons for his withdrawal or her hesitation to participate, ask before assuming anything. Ask if there is anything you can do to help, or if there is an issue that should be brought to a staff member’s attention (for example, no one likes to play Bingo because the time frame isn’t convenient). If they simply say, “I’m just not ready yet,” then let it go, offer your support, and give them time.

Read this post, Keeping in Touch After An Assisted Living Move, for further advice on staying engaged and making visits meaningful.

Michelle Seitzer spent 10 years filling various roles at assisted living communities in Pennsylvania and Maryland, then worked as a public policy coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association in PA, before settling down as a full-time freelance writer. Seitzer also served as a long-distance caregiver for her beloved grandfather, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 2009. She has blogged for, which provides information on assisted living, home care, and Alzheimer’s care, since November 2008, and is the co-moderator of the first #ElderCareChat on Twitter, held every other Wednesday at 1pm EST. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.