The decision to move an elderly loved one into assisted living is practically and emotionally complex, especially when the time comes for you to make the decision. You want them to be safe, happy, and cared for, but for many elderly people, the decision can be a towering and frightening emotional obstacle. Both parties may battle difficult emotions like anger, anxiety, guilt, regret, and apprehension, while also feeling completely out of control. And unless these emotions are processed and dealt with, they can continue for years after the transition.

Here are some strategies that may help you navigate this difficult process.

Reasons why caregivers feel guilty

Regardless of whether the decision to move a loved one to assisted living is warranted, children and carers can still feel overwhelming guilt and sadness. Some of the reasons behind these feelings are:

  • It goes against our natural human instincts—we generally want to care for, nurture and provide a safe and loving environment for our loved ones.
  • A sense of abandoning or betraying your loved one or handing them over to strangers.
  • A sense or confirmation that it is not what your loved one wants
  • It goes against religious, cultural, or familial expectations—you are not living up to what others believe is your responsibility.
  • A sense of guilt that you are living your life happily rather than caring for your loved one at home
  • Relief that you are in a safe situation with less to worry about and therefore you are selfish or guilty

Strategies to assist with guilt and anxiety

Guilt, anxiety, self-doubt, shame, regret, and apprehension are common emotional reactions for those placing their loved one in assisted living, and dealing with this takes time. The following strategies can help you feel more confident about your decision, and enable you to focus your efforts as someone other than a primary caregiver.

Make it a smooth transition

When you first move your loved one into an assisted living facility, it can be overwhelming. You will have to deal with contractual obligations, financial and health matters, and then the actual moving process. These can all exacerbate negative emotions, but are a natural reaction under stressful circumstances. Give yourself time to adjust, and focus on making the transition as smooth and as stress-free as possible. This can include:

  • Setting up established routines by communicating with staff about your loved one’s preferences.
  • Personalising their room with photos, bedding, furniture, and favourite mementos.
  • Getting to know carers and other residents before your loved one moves in.
  • Understanding what program activities your loved one may be interested in attending.
  • Preparing a visiting schedule for friends and family, and keeping regular contact.
  • Making your visits as memorable and as meaningful as possible.
  • Asking for staff advice on how you can leave the facility on the first day to minimise distress.

Forgive yourself

Regardless of the circumstances, it is common to feel emotional during difficult transitions like these, and though it’s not always easy, you need to forgive yourself. With their day-to-day care no longer your responsibility, you can now focus on spending quality time with them. You will be more calm and relaxed and can build a relationship you can both cherish for years to come.

It’s also important to remember that your life matters too, you can only do so much, and that the total control of someone’s life isn’t just up to you. You also need to look after your own physical and mental health as much as you have taken care of your loved one’s.

Don’t blame yourself

Being a loved one’s caregiver is an enormous responsibility, decisions have to be made about situations you’ve not encountered before, and issues handled that there are no right or wrong answers for. Once a decision is made, there will be consequences, and the solution may not solve every problem or make everyone happy.

Understand that regardless of whether your loved one is facing a progressive illness or age-related issues, the issue of declining health would still have to be dealt with. Do your best to handle it within your abilities and then try and let the rest go.

Acknowledge the change

You may have felt stress and anxiety caring for your loved one before their transition, but it’s also possible you will still feel the same way afterwards. This is a common reaction, because although the move may have been necessary for their health and wellbeing, it may not be an automatic solution or resolution for you.

To help you adjust to this new change, acknowledge that it is a significant adjustment. Recognising you are dealing with something that won’t change immediately will allow you to understand the challenges you are facing. You can’t overcome the complicated emotion of guilt if you don’t give yourself permission to feel it and work through it in your own time.

Understand the benefits

Assisted living is managed by long-term care facilities that provide increased comfort and safety for ageing or ill seniors. Before they are accepted, management will conduct a thorough needs assessment of potential residents before they move in.

Some facilities won’t offer medical care but will help residents with basic daily tasks. Others provide skilled nursing care and consistent supervision, and if needed, 24-hour care to those with significant disabilities, cognitive impairment, or chronic or prolonged illness. This personal care will allow you to focus on your loved one’s emotional needs while leaving their physical needs to the professionals.

Accept the help being given

If your loved one is healthy, happy and settled, let the assisted living facility do its job — the bulk of your loved one’s care is their responsibility now. Advocate for your loved one, visit them often and make their life more comfortable where you can, but then move forward with your own life. You will find that you have more time and energy to devote to your own relationships, which will benefit everyone. 

Also, understand that your role doesn’t end with the transition. You are still an essential part of your loved one’s care team, and frequent communication with them will provide a rich and rewarding result for everyone.

Take care of yourself

Taking the time to process your emotions is vital for any healing process after a significant life change. Acknowledging your loss, grief, guilt, and relief can allow for a healthier adjustment after your loved one moves. Ways to achieve this include:

  • Giving yourself the time and permission to grieve.
  • Acknowledging and accepting your emotions for what they are.
  • Seeking reconciliation with your loved one for old resentments or unresolved conflicts.
  • Shifting your focus towards unconditional love rather than feelings of obligation.
  • Reminding yourself that your loved one is less isolated, safer and better cared for.
  • Understanding that you did not cause your loved one’s cognitive or physical impairments.
  • Remembering that you are doing your best under challenging circumstances that are largely out of your control.
  • Giving yourself permission to live a life that isn’t totally focused on your loved one.
  • Taking care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally.
  • Surrounding yourself with a strong support system, including discussing your feelings with family, friends and medical professionals if required. This includes your GP regarding your physical health and a psychologist in terms of your mental health.
  • Not comparing yourself and your situation to others — all individuals and their circumstances are different.

Signs it is time for assisted living

As elderly loved ones grow older, many struggle to accept that they need help managing their daily life, and try to minimise the amount of assistance they need. But as their carer, you need to evaluate the situation holistically, including being honest about their safety, health, and emotional wellbeing. 

Signs they may require assisted living include:

Safety and physical wellbeing

This includes if your elderly family member:

  • Has poor or worsening health
  • Has recently experienced a fall or a medical emergency
  • Has a chronic health condition that is deteriorating
  • Is taking significantly longer to recover from illness
  • Seems frail, has poor grip strength, or becomes tired quickly
  • Has difficulty completing daily living tasks
  • Cannot access medical help quickly enough in an emergency
  • Is neglecting personal care, like skipping meals, showing poor personal hygiene, or forgetting medication

Emotional wellbeing

This includes if your elderly family member:

  • Appears depressed or anxious
  • Doesn’t have active friendships
  • Is increasingly lonely
  • Doesn’t enjoy regular outings outside the home
  • Doesn’t enthusiastically enjoy any interests and hobbies
  • Doesn’t have someone that can check on them regularly

Household concerns

This includes:

  • Signs of clutter or lax housekeeping in the home
  • Piles of unopened bills or personal mail
  • Expired or stale foods, or multiple purchases of the same item

Assisted living options in Australia

In Australia, the options for assisted living are wide and varied. Understanding the differences between these care facilities and their support levels is the first step towards deciding what will work best for you and your elderly loved one’s medical, physical and emotional needs. The main types are:

Assisted living

This is an elderly care facility that provides non-medical care, however, it can help individuals with basic daily tasks — like doing laundry, preparing meals, cleaning or driving — in a setting that resembles their own home. These communities come in a range of styles, from intimate cottages to suburban villages and luxury apartments. It is best suited to individuals who are mostly independent and mobile, and would benefit from an active social community and only need occasional help with daily tasks. It is also an option for couples and can be adjusted to provide additional care and support in the future when it is needed.

Long-term care

Long-term care facilities like nursing homes are designed to provide 24-hour nursing care to elderly individuals. They provide a high level of supervision in a secure setting with expert medical support and care. This is the best option for individuals with a significant disability, chronic or prolonged illness or cognitive impairment like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.