Minimizing Relocation Stress for your Loved One

By: Mary Bliesmer, RN, MPH, DNSc and Karin Pauly, Founder Caring for Nancy

 Moving can be difficult for anyone. But when your loved one must move it can be overwhelming and frightening for them and may even result in changes to their physical health or mental well-being. This is called Relocation Stress Syndrome.

What is Relocation Stress Syndrome? It is a formal nursing diagnosis defined as “physiological and/or psychosocial disturbances as a result of transfer from one environment to another” or “the combination of medical and psychological reactions to abrupt physical transfer that may result in the risk of grave illness or death.”

It may be difficult for your loved one to move to a new location, particularly if it signals a loss of independence, increased distance from loved ones, and/or a lack of familiarity of surroundings. This stress is heightened if it is a change they do not want or if there is confusion as to why they have been relocated. Our loved ones with cognitive impairment, such as forms of dementia, may have even greater difficulties. If you sense there will be immense difficulty relocating your loved one, be assured that this is a real condition and concern. There are steps you can take to minimize relocation stress that will make the transition easier for your loved one and for you as their caregiver.

Minimizing Relocation Stress

  • Be Aware of the Signs and Symptoms of Relocation Stress: There are many obvious and subtle symptoms, which include depression, sadness and crying, indecision and confusion, anxiety and insecurity and distrust, which may manifest itself in negative comments about staff in their new surroundings, a resistance or unwillingness to move, and anger or aggressive behavior. Symptoms may even include significant health issues such as sleep disturbance, hallucinations, falls or weight fluctuations due to a change in eating habits or stomach problems. Perhaps one of the most devasting and heartbreaking impacts is loneliness, which may result in withdrawal, despair, or blaming you or other family members for the move.
  • Know it Takes Time to Adjust: It may take up to 30 days for your loved one to adjust to a move. Often, a loved one is moving from an environment they share to living alone. This is an incredibly difficult situation and it’s essential to understand your loved one’s emotional challenges.
  • Validate Your Loved One’s Feelings: Let them share their feelings. Truly listen and validate their concerns. Provide them with opportunities to share and never say, “you should” (in fact avoid the word “should” as much as possible). Telling your loved one how they “should feel” invalidates their concerns and feelings.
  • Inform Your Loved One of the Need to Move: Communicate that the move is necessary to ensure their health and safety. Tell them you love them, are there for them always and are accessible, simply a phone call away. If possible, inform your loved one ahead of time about the move.
  • Don’t Assume Your Loved One Cannot Participate in the Relocation Decision: Even if the move is inevitable, your loved one can share preferences about the type of care they receive, including location and lifestyle. For instance: What do they like to eat and drink? Are there particular activities they would like to participate in? How do they feel about sharing a room or is it essential they live by themselves? If your loved one has the cognitive ability to share in the decision of where and when to move, it is essential that you and your family members truly listen to his or her wishes and accommodate them whenever possible.
  • Prepare the Living Space: If you can prepare your loved one’s living space ahead of time, bring and arrange their treasured personal items in their living space. Favorite photographs, keepsakes, personal care items and even favorite snacks will make them feel more comfortable. Help them become acclimated to their surroundings by offering tours and helping unpack items.
  • Be an Advocate: As a caregiver, you are the advocate for your loved one and you should never apologize for asking questions or requesting (or demanding) care on their behalf. Make sure the care team at your loved one’s new home is paying attention to details such as eating, ambulation, mobility and medication tolerance. Tell them to communicate any concerns and issues with you in a timely manner. If you are not satisfied with the care your loved one is receiving, communicate this to the staff. In extreme cases, engage an ombudsman, who is an official appointed to address complaints about maladministration of your loved one’s care and can assist you in resolving the issue. Many states employ ombudsmen focused on long-term care and are helpful in resolving conflict among your loved one, you, and the staff.
  • Stay Connected: Introduce your loved one to their team of caregivers and ensure staff and volunteers connect with your loved one. Communicate regularly with the nursing staff, social workers, family members, and others who interact with your loved one. Ask staff to help minimize stress by learning and anticipating your loved one’s challenges or concerns, such as notifying them ahead of time when they will be bathed or that they will be awakened to take medication.

You cannot remove stress entirely from a relocation, but knowing the potential challenges and how to help prepare your loved one can make this significant transition easier for both of you. To learn more about Relocation Stress Syndrome,


Mary taught professional nursing at Minnesota State University, Mankato for over 30 years with a focus on geriatric nursing in the clinical setting of long-term care. She holds a master’s degree in public health nursing from the University of Minnesota, a doctorate in nursing science from Rush University in Chicago and was certified as a geriatric nurse practitioner.