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Relocation Stress Syndrome in the Elderly

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Relocation Stress Syndrome in the Elderly
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Relocation Stress Syndrome in the Elderly

October 12, 2020

It’s natural to be reluctant to leave the home and the life you’re used to and start anew. That transition can be even more jarring if it’s not a matter of wanting to move because of a personal choice, but because you’re getting older and need a little more help, or at least more readily available conveniences, to go about your daily life. Moving is never an easy process, but transitioning to a retirement community or assisted living center can be especially emotional.

a crying elderly woman wiping her tears with a tissue

What Is Relocation Stress Syndrome? 

Moving can be a significant stressor, adding time-related, financial and organizational burdens to anyone’s life. But for older adults, a major move can also be emotionally difficult.

Medical professionals have increasingly been diagnosing and treating seniors with relocation stress syndrome (RSS), characterized by anxiety, confusion, loneliness, depression, apprehension and even anger after a move to a senior living community. Symptoms of stress associated with this environment change are specific enough that in 1992 the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association added RSS as an official diagnosis.

Symptoms of RSS most often appear just before relocation and during the three-month period following a move. They most likely stem from someone’s perception that they’ve lost control of their living situation compounded by the frustration of acclimating to a new environment and an abrupt departure from familiar friends and neighbors.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Relocation Stress Syndrome? 

The symptoms of RSS can vary from person to person. Common signs that a person may be dealing with the syndrome after a move to a senior or assisted living community include:

  • Agitation or irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Cognitive changes
  • Combativeness
  • Confusion
  • Decline in self-care
  • Depression
  • Inability to focus
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of sleep 
  • Nausea
  • Noticeable changes in family relationships
  • Refusal to take medication
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Withdrawal or isolation

Some of these symptoms are also associated with dementia and other aging-related health problems. If you’re worried about a loved one and ready to consult with a doctor, it’s important to consider a recent move as a potential contributor to these symptoms and behavioral changes. The good news about RSS is that these life-altering symptoms are typically reversible.  

Helping Loved Ones Manage the Stress of Moving 

There are important ways you can help prevent, or reduce the severity of, relocation stress syndrome. The first is to involve your loved one in decision-making. Make sure they know what’s happening at all times and include them when visiting senior communities. If they feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or overly anxious about a specific community, it’s usually not the right fit. See what amenities, activities and floor plans appeal most to your loved one. Having a say in things might help decrease the anxiety of this transition. 

Let your loved one decide which items they want to bring from their old home to their new one, and help them recreate their space – as much as possible – to look and feel like the one they were comfortable in. During move-in, make sure that the items they use all the time are in familiar and easily accessible locations.  

Try to set a manageable moving timeline. An abrupt move is not good, in most cases. Allow your loved one time to alert friends and neighbors of their impending move and decide which items they’d like to bring along. Enlist family members to pitch in with the moving process, or consider hiring a senior move management firm. 

Encourage your loved one to develop new relationships in their new environment. Getting involved in community activities – or simply sharing meals – are great ways to meet new people, maintain a sense of purpose or even discover a new passion. If possible, try to visit often, and encourage other nearby family members and friends to do the same.  

With adequate preparation and support, you may help your loved one avoid RSS altogether, or at least lessen its severity or duration. If your loved one isn’t acting like himself or herself within a few months, it’s time to seek help from a medical and/or mental health professional.

In addition, if your loved one has dementia, it’s important to enlist the help of their care providers and the specialist staff at their new community, as people with dementia often struggle to adapt to new circumstances and may be unable to participate fully in decision-making. 

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