Mar 10, 2021

What is Relocation Stress Syndrome?

Birds create their nests, ready to protect and cherish their young, polar bears create burrows to safely hibernate in during winter.

Most animals tirelessly work to create precious places to dwell in.

Humans are no different.

We spend years, countless dollars and even more unconscious emotional currency investing in our homes.

We start and develop lifelong partnerships in them, we bring home miraculous new life to them, we wrestle through the bath time routine with irreverent toddlers in them and we send them off to high school waving from its front porch.

More than we realise happens in our homes, the connection to the space and all the memories creates a beautiful and incredible powerful pull.

No wonder then, when it’s time to move and leave that space behind, the trauma and disorientation of the prospect of saying goodbye, can cause extreme stress.  

It’s not just leaving the home behind but it’s things, it’s memories, for seniors it can be a matter of parting with decades of emotional and physical connection.

The stress that can happen even before a move and around three to six months after has been called “Relocation Stress Syndrome”.

The North American Nurses Association added it to its official diagnosis list in 1992 and hospitals and insurance companies are now taking it seriously.

Relocation Stress Syndrome (RSS)

According to a paper commissioned by Moves For Seniors, RSS is likely to be displayed right before a move and within the first three months.

Symptoms vary but can include anxiety, depression and forgetfulness.

Greene Mintz, a clinical social worker has worked alongside RSS patients for many years and says, ““The effects of stress on the mind and body are well known. This particular stress is a little bit different in that it is so easily misdiagnosed as a problem to do with aging. When people have stress, they tend to get angry or irritable, they can’t focus, they can’t think clearly, they have trouble making decisions. These are all also symptoms of dementia.”

It is important to avoid a misdiagnosis of dementia, signs to look prior to your senior loved one moving are changes in cognition, altered eating and sleeping habits and in particular a new sense of unease, insecurity or lack of trust and a decline in self-care.  

How To Help

If you suspect that your loved one has RSS there are a few approaches to help ease the transition. Connecting mum or dad with a therapist can help to provide a safe place for them to uncover their concerns and grief over the move.

Assisted living communities regularly offer welcome groups to new members, encourage your loved one to join and mingle. Yet importantly, perhaps before all else, acknowledge their pain.

They are moving from what they have known and loved to a place that will possibly be their last.

To acknowledge this is a huge imperative for families of senior moving, in acknowledging their concerns and sadness over the move is to give them the dignity and honour they deserve.

Instead of being the peppy cheerleader for the move and forcing them to embrace change sitting down and saying “you’re right” mum or dad can go a great way in reassuring them of their sanity, their worth and their agency.

Approaches To Reduce Or Prevent Relocation Stress Syndrome

  1. Use advocates or navigators offered from hospitals or aged care facilities to assist in the move.
  2. Involve your senior in the decision-making. If it’s imperative they move into a facility, allow them to be front and centre in deciding which one to attend. Seek out their final agreement on the place.
  3. Keep your mum or dad in the loop. Let them know exactly what’s occurring. “I don’t believe in infantilizing seniors,” says Greene Mintz. “They are adults and they deserve the dignity of being told honestly what’s going to happen.”
  4. Acknowledge their feelings. If they are concerned about connecting with fellow residents don’t leap to assuring them of finding friends. Instead acknowledge uncertainty and encourage a positive approach to it, saying “I don’t know who will be there. We’re going to find out. Try to keep an open mind.”
  5. Validate their emotions. They may be excited, relieved, scared, nervous or terrified. Provide them with the space to go through these feelings, they are all normal reactions.
  6. However possible, try to the best of your ability to recreate their old home and comforts in their new residence. Taking pictures of bedside table set-ups, top of dressers and the items on them can help in providing a soft landing. Recreating that feeling of home in a new location is paramount to settling in believes Greene Mintz.

A lot of patience, love and care goes into assisting a loved senior in relocating but if the effort is put in, their new life can bring joy, safety and security.

Regardless of age, people deserve respect and care in times of change and trauma, how much more those that have raised and cared for us.

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