By Dwayne J. Clark
It’s tough enough when families realize that it’s time to move an aging parent into a senior living community—but that decision is made even more wrenching when grandchildren are part of the mix. I know this from experience.
When I was 11 years old, my mother had no choice but to move my grandmother into a nursing home. For me, the change was particularly difficult. “Granny” had been a constant, soothing presence in our house and in my life after my parents divorced and then again after my older siblings moved out. She never failed to welcome me home from school with a cola and a plate of cookies, to listen with genuine interest as I recounted the day’s events, or to find the humor in my silly antics.
My sense of security came crashing down when Granny tripped over the family pet and broke her hip, prompting the move and marking the start of a permanent physical decline.
Today, a growing number of children face the possibility of this type of physical and emotional disruption to their home and family routine. There are approximately 10 million households right now that are anchored by an adult caregiver trying to meet the needs of at least one elderly loved one and their own children. And that number is likely to rise as the population ages and the younger generation increasingly puts off childbearing until their 30s and early 40s.
As the CEO of several assisted living communities, I have seen this unique family transition play out quite frequently. There is no doubt that moving a grandparent into a new housing arrangement is emotionally difficult for both the senior and for their grandchildren. However, it can be handled with a lot less trauma when caregivers engage in deliberate, upfront planning and involve the child in the process.
My mother, for example, went to great lengths to ensure that I stayed involved and maintained a close relationship with my grandmother, and it helped ease what was a painful childhood event. Today, I cherish the time and relationship that I had with my grandmother—both before and after her move.
My mother didn’t have a blueprint for helping me during that time, but I’ve seen many families utilize the following steps to successfully help their children adjust to their grandparent’s new living situation. By doing so, other caregivers will likely find that it helps minimize stress and grief for themselves and their family members—and they often develop even stronger family bonds.
1) Keep the child in the loop. As soon as you know that a move is definite, even it’s not immediate begin to set the stage for change by explaining the reasons to your children in age-appropriate terms. The details will vary, but the content of the conversation should be the same, regardless of your child’s age. For a six-year-old, you might explain that even though Grandma loves living with family, she gets a bit lonely being by herself during the school and work day and wants to spend more time with friends her own age. An older teen, though, will grasp that Grandma is not only feeling isolated but also needs assistance with her personal care and medication and would benefit from more socializing. Help your children to understand that even though the living arrangement will change, they will still be able to visit and spend time with their grandparent on a regular basis.
2) Change perceptions. Long-held stereotypes about cold, stale, smelly nursing homes are too often perpetuated through stories and movies, so a lot of children (and even their grandparents) are likely to view senior housing as an unfriendly and scary place. Even before you tell your children about the move, you should begin to replace that image with a more positive reality. Today’s assisted living communities are nothing like your grandfather’s nursing home. They are bright, warm, caring, active, communities with upscale amenities such as private living quarters, gourmet meals, exercise rooms and even spas and coffee shops. Seniors can go for walks in scenic outdoor gardens, sign up for a daytrip to a local art museum, and enjoy a nice dinner with friends and family or even play a game of Wii. Describe Grandma’s or Grandpa’s new home to your children in excited, happy terms, and let the child know that they’ll still be able to visit their loved one frequently and spend lots of quality time with them.
3) Enlist the child’s help. Children love to feel valued and included, and you—and your own parent—can do this by soliciting a child’s advice on some of the key decisions involved in choosing and setting up their grandparents’ new home away from home. If the child is older, you might ask them to accompany you on a tour of a couple of communities and get their opinion on which one they think Grandma or Grandpa would like best and why. Get younger children involved by asking questions, such as: What do you think Grandma’s favorite piece of furniture is? If they decide it’s her antique rocking chair, you can respond, “Okay, great, we’ll need to make sure we take that,” and then ask them to help you dust and polish it “because she’ll want to show it off to her new friends.” Or challenge a tween by asking, If Grandpa could take just three personal items, what would they be? It might include a memento, a trophy, a book, a photograph, or a game. By involving children in very rudimentary but important decisions, you give them some control and a sense of belonging and importance that will go a long way towards easing any anxiety about the new living arrangement.
4) Give the child a sense of purpose. After the move, you can do your part to not only help your child maintain their bond with their grandparent—but also enhance it. Plan to make the visit a valuable one by challenging the child to think about what they can share with Grandma on the next visit. They might choose to bring a favorite game to play or some kind of meaningful item such as a new toy, a report card, a photo or a piece of artwork, that can stimulate conversation and help keep the grandparent involved in your child’s daily life. Ask them to think up a list of recent happenings at school or in their extracurricular activities that they can talk about or to recall some special memories of time with Grandpa and Grandma that make for fun reminiscing. Take steps to make new memories and new bonding experiences. If your elderly loved one is up for it, for example, take everyone out to dinner or go see a play or ballgame. Even if grandparents can’t leave the community, your kids might still be able to attend community activities with them such as movie nights, arts and crafts, and sing-alongs. The kids will have fun, the grandparent will be happy, and it will make for great additions to the family photo album.
5) Encourage connection. Children are sometimes uncomfortable at their loved one’s senior living community because they don’t feel a sense of belonging. You can overcome this by encouraging your child to do things that will enable them to “bond” with their grandparent’s new residence. Get them involved in the community by having the senior introduce the child to caregivers and other residents. Encourage the grandparent to take the child on a tour or participate in community activities. Have your child regularly spend a special time with the grandparent for lunch, or celebrate your child’s birthday with a party in the residential dining room. And if you need your own visiting time with your parent, let your child enjoy the community family room which usually has child-friendly activities and videogame consoles. By keeping your child engaged in their grandparent’s life and working to establish new rituals and traditions, you can help the child build positive feelings for their grandparent’s new home—and new memories with their grandparent.
Of course, a move to a senior living community is often precipitated by more serious health issues, such as advancing dementia or a stroke. Those situations can make the move much more traumatic for a child because it often means that their established relationship with the grandparent will change dramatically, along with the living arrangement.
Parents in these situations can still benefit from the previous advice, but they will need to take additional steps to help their children adjust to, and cope with, these changes. Parents will need to sit down and have an age-appropriate discussion about their grandparent’s health situation and prepare them for how Grandma might look or what she might say.
The key to remember is that, though while health circumstances and living arrangements will likely change over time, the relationship between a grandchild and his or her grandparent can—and should—remain close, memorable and intact.
Dwayne J. Clark is the founder and CEO of Aegis Living, currently with 28 senior living communities in Washington, California, and Nevada, and the author of “My Mother, My Son.” Visit him online at www.mymothermyson.com.
Connect with NJTODAY.NET
Join NJTODAY.NET's free Email List to receive occasional updates delivered right to your email address!