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Major changes like moving can set back health of some elders

Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist

Dear Carol: My mother's memory has gotten very poor, her arthritis puts her at risk for falls and she has severe asthma, so she decided that she'd be better off in assisted living. My brother and I were in agreement and we went with Mom to look at available facilities. We were thrilled with what we thought was the perfect home.

Since the move, though, Mom has lost interest in everything. She won't do her once cherished crossword puzzles, even when I bring the newest ones published. Her magazines pile up unread. She won't participate in any of the interesting activities that the facility offers and has to be begged to go to group meals. It's like she pulling in on herself.

We have to sell her house to continue paying for her assisted living, but now my brother and I feel guilty. What if she wants to go back to her old home? She says, no, that's not what she wants. She likes feeling safe. Yet she shows no interest in life. To be fair, this was coming on long before the move, but it's worse now. How do we handle the situation? — Tim

Dear Tim: I feel your caregiver guilt pouring through your words, so the first thing that I want to tell you is that it sounds like you and your brother did the right thing. You also have the comfort of knowing that this move was your mom's choice.

Change can be hard for anyone, and older people often have a more difficult time adjusting to change than younger people. Even though your mom chose to leave her old house and knows that she is safe and cared for, she is leaving behind an enormous chunk of her life that is symbolized by that house. Adjustment takes time. Eventually, she may be able to settle in and find some enjoyment once again.

I'm repeating my standard advice here because it needs to be said. She should see her doctor. She could likely use a complete physical, including a thorough look at side effects of any drugs that she's been prescribed, as well as over-the-counter drugs or supplements that she's been taking. She should also be checked for any sign of infection. Additionally, she may need to have her memory issues diagnosed by a specialist, if that hasn't been done.

As I mentioned, the changes brought about by the move and the emotional aftermath are normal for nearly any elder.

However, if she has Alzheimer's disease, a move can set some people back farther than normal. Some people rebound and others don't.

If this is the case, it still doesn't mean that the move was a mistake. In fact, it likely means that you made exactly the right decision. Such a move later in her dementia (if she has dementia) could have had an even more serious effect.

I'm assuming that you brought items from her home that she can still enjoy in her new, smaller surroundings. This is an important part of keeping some of the past in her new atmosphere. You could keep a store of her cherished things in your home so that you can bring something "new" over to surprise her from time to time.

Give your mom more time to adjust and work with the staff to find ways to spark some interest in life. She may eventually perk up. Don't pressure her to show that she's "happy," though. A certain amount of contentment may be the best she can do at this time and she has that by feeling safe.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at She can be reached at