Help Aging Parents Cope When Living Separately in Assisted Living

by Andrea Norris-McKnight

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It can be hard for the elderly when they’re forced to live separately from their spouse because of medical needs. How can you help your aging parents cope with this situation?

According to the CDC, the average life expectancy is 76.4 years. As parents age, they may begin experiencing diminished capacity. They might need the help offered in an assisted living facility.

In some cases, caregivers may determine at a certain point that parents need to live separately, with one living in an assisted living environment while the other lives independently or at a facility offering specialty care.

How can you, as the caregiver, help parents cope with the separation? To give us some insight, we contacted Connie Chow, founder of DailyCaring offers free, practical caregiving tips to solve day-to-day challenges faced by caregivers.

Q: What circumstances may arise where parents must live separately in assisted living?

Ms. Chow: One reason parents live separately is because one spouse is no longer physically able to care for the other. Another reason is that they both need care but have significantly different needs.

For example, Dad may have taken care of Mom for the past five years, but her Alzheimer’s is now so advanced that Mom’s care is taking a severe toll on Dad’s health. He would have no choice but to move her to a memory care unit while he remained in his assisted living apartment.

Another case might be where Dad has suffered a stroke that’s left him with very limited mobility and high care needs. Because he’s so much taller and heavier than Mom, it’s not possible for her to manage his incontinence, bathe, or dress him. At that point, Dad would need to move to an area of assisted living that can accommodate a high level of care. And Mom, who’s pretty independent, would stay where she is.

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Q: If parents must live separately, what actions and emotions can caregivers expect from parents?

Ms. Chow: When a couple is separated, especially after being together for decades, it’s a major shock. Each parent will likely feel lonely, isolated, or lost. Their daily routines have been disrupted and life on their own feels unnatural. They may react by becoming angry, depressed, or withdrawn. In the case of Alzheimer’s or dementia, they may show increased confusion or behavioral issues.

Q: Are there ways to soothe possible anxiety and distress that could come with living separately?

Ms. Chow: Being separated from a longtime companion can bring up fears of being abandoned or alone. To calm these fears, spend as much time with each parent as possible. Organize family and friends to visit regularly so they feel supported and loved.

Encourage your parent to socialize with friends or other residents and get involved in activities. Talking with others about it and knowing that they’re not the only ones going through this life change makes it easier to cope. Keeping up with interests is a positive focus that takes their mind off anxieties or fears.

Q: Are there ways to help parents cope when they are forced to live separately in assisted living?

Ms. Chow: It will help if parents can maintain their relationship as much as possible. Regularly spending time together or eating meals together restores a bit of normalcy. Being able to maintain their connection will help them cope with the changes.

Meals are especially important because seniors often develop a poor appetite when they no longer have someone to eat with. It’s ideal if parents can eat together, but making sure each has enjoyable mealtime companions will also help.

It’s also comforting if parents can maintain some of their routines. For example, if they always watched a certain TV show on Thursday afternoons, make arrangements for them to keep watching that show together. Or maybe they spent every Sunday afternoon sipping coffee and sharing the newspaper. On Sundays, find a quiet corner and help them recreate that routine.

Q: What are some options for care that people may forget to consider when parents are living separately in assisted living?

Ms. Chow: An important thing to remember is that the adjustment process takes longer than you might think. In times of crisis, family bands together for support. But after a few weeks, people tend to drift away. Your parents will still need and appreciate the extra support long after those initial weeks have passed.

Another option to consider is that your parents may benefit from talking with a neutral third party. Ask a trusted spiritual or community leader to visit. Or, consider hiring a counselor or psychologist.

Reviewed January 2024

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