Surviving the Stress of Transitions

Transitions can be a bear. Given the choice, most of us would rather keep doing the same things, even when our habits have long outlived their value.  It’s no wonder that elders with dementia resist changing their living situations long after they’ve lost the skills needed to manage daily life.

If you look at transitions in a larger context, it’s pretty clear that humans are both terrified and excited by them. Big changes can provoke us to strive toward growth — or crash into failure — and this process starts early. During the transition from middle to high school, many students stumble academically and continue to slide downhill.  Statistics from the National High School Center show that a disproportionate number of ninth graders are held back in ninth grade, prompting many of them to drop out of school by tenth grade. The transition to college is just as hard. A 2010 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that the United States finished last among 18 developed countries “for the percentage of students (46%) who completed college once they started it.”

If we balk at life transitions that have a lot of hope and promise attached to them, it’s easy to see how stressful change must be for elders whose declining skills force them into new situations. Although my mom’s advancing dementia had clearly reduced her ability to manage daily survival, her resistance to asking for help was tremendous. We tried talking her into getting an aide or a housekeeper, but she felt this was a ridiculous intrusion. She was also sure that her children could do what hired helpers might — even though we lived hours away from her and could barely manage our own lives while monitoring hers. A crazy work schedule had turned my hair into an overgrown mess, but Mom was deeply offended when I said I didn’t have time to chauffeur her to a salon.

We finally persuaded my mother to modify her living situation when a burst pipe flooded her kitchen. The leak scared her enough to make her move in with me “temporarily”. Proceeding by baby steps, our family helped her slowly get used to living in a different house, with a new routine. Her quality of life improved dramatically. But she never would have believed that at the beginning.

An article in the June/July 2012 issue of AARP magazine suggests that these smaller moves toward a bigger life change can help ease the transition process for elders who cling to old homes and habits. Susan Johnson of Care Management Associates suggested providing help “in spoonfuls, not buckets”. It’s better to start by offering to hire someone for a task your loved one doesn’t like, such as cleaning house. As things progress, include the elder in decisions about managing other chores that present difficulty. If a parent feels like you are ordering them around, they may present even greater resistance to change.

Small things like the end of a beloved TV series or the closing of a favorite store can make us very sad, so imagine how hard it is for elders to say goodbye to an entire life’s worth of well-worn habits. The need for transitions will never disappear. But we can make change easier if it’s wrapped in some gentle wisdom.

4 Responses to Surviving the Stress of Transitions

  1. Yep, transitions can be nearly impossible, especially when you’re dealing with elders who have been in their homes for decades. This was the case with my grandmother – she’d been in the same house since my mom still lived with her, about forty years. Thankfully, it didn’t take an accident like a burst pipe to get her to agree to moving.

    • Dear Gentleperson:Jean Simmons, who is such a blessing to our failmy, gave me your website info. I was born and raised in Wildwood, FL and returned in 2006 after spending 40 years in NYC and Chicago to help with my mother after I was able to take an early retirement at age 62. It was not until a year ago or so that I realized that something unusual was going on with my mother. At the end of last year, she was diagnosed with Vascular Dementia. Still, we are greatly blessed. She has her bad days when she wonders what has happened to her husband, or her sister or her mother, but then there are other days when she brings me so much joy. I am her son and she is my mother. From the beginning, we have had a duty to each other. She has done for me everything that a mother is required to do for her son. I am proud that the Creator has placed in my heart the will to fullfill my duty to her. I am grateful that you have the courage and the character to speak the truth regarding the issues that you face. You are a blessing to your mother and you are a blessing to us.Peace and Love.Sam

      • September 30, 2011A question has come up today that I would love adicve on What are some good questions to ask ourselves in weighing the positives vs. the negatives in taking a caree with dementia out of their own environment?My mother is not able to go as much as she use to. On Fridays she goes to get her hair done. It was very difficult today getting there and at the beauty salon. Just wondered if there were questions that could guide whether she is still able to go out. I feel so badly limiting or stopping the outings from a social standpoint, but for physical and emotional needs it’s becoming harder.

  2. Great article, I enjoyed reading it.

Leave a Reply