Aging Loved Ones and “Transfer Trauma”

How can we help ease the transition of moving our aging loved one into a full-time care facility? I've heard of something called "transfer trauma," but I don't know exactly what it is or how it's likely to affect my mother. Can you give me some idea of what to expect?

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When an elderly person moves from an independent-living situation into a facility where he needs either custodial or continuing care, he may experience what sociologists call “transfer trauma.” It was once thought that transfer trauma could actually result in death, but more recent studies have shown that it is not as serious a condition as once believed.

If you do any gardening, you can liken transfer trauma to the “root shock” experienced by plants when you transplant them from a container to a permanent place in your yard. The plant’s system must readjust to a new environment and to new soil. It must also begin taking in nourishment immediately if it is to survive. It has to be watered, fertilized, and carefully nurtured during those first few weeks after being transplanted. The same is true for anyone who relocates, and it’s particularly true for an elderly person who is being moved from a familiar environment to one that could be potentially unfriendly or confusing.

In order to minimize transfer trauma, take your aging loved one with you as you visit various long-term-care facilities in your community. If they are too feeble for this, gather some literature about the facility, preferably including lots of large, clear photographs. Perhaps you can get permission to videotape the foyer and a typical room like the one in which your elder would be staying. Bring along a list of questions to ask the directors of these facilities. Spend some time with the people who live there as well as those who are directly involved in providing care. Visit the facility several times with your loved one before making the move. Let her know she will be living in community with others who also have limitations and that they will be able to help one another. Emphasize the fact that this can be a time of great service to others who may have more serious physical or mental needs. If your elder is a Christian, this could be a wonderful opportunity for her to share her faith in Christ in some practical ways.

If after all of this your loved one still wishes she were in an independent-living environment, do your best to help her understand that, due to her physical or mental needs, she simply must have the attention of professional caregivers.

Once you’ve agreed on a care facility, give the staff some information about your aging loved one’s background, interests and preferences. Consider writing a little “book” about her life, including photos, for the staff. Any reputable facility will immediately see the value of this. They will also be in a much better position to appreciate and support you in your role as advocate for your loved one’s care. If this type of information is not welcomed, it may be wise to reconsider your choice of facility.

For additional help and information on this topic, we’d encourage you to consult the resources and referrals highlighted below. Or if you have relationship concerns and challenges associated with this situation, please don’t hesitate to call our Counseling department.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones

Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2002, Focus on the Family.

This information has been approved by the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family.

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