How not to move your mother into assisted living

In retrospect, it’s kind of funny, at least for a moment. Then I remember that at the time it was a nightmare for us all, especially my mother. I’m relating it now in hopes that someone out there won’t make the same mistake I did.

Let’s assume that, like my mother had, your mother has reached a physical and/or mental state (my mother was suffering from increasing short-term memory loss) that would greatly benefit from her moving to a nurturing assisted living setting. You and your family think so, her doctor thinks so, her friends think so, even the insurance company representative who is assessing her for her long-term care benefits thinks so. Yet your mother, as with my mother and many other seniors in similar conditions, does not. She is comfortable in her own home and sees no reason to move.

Reasoning with her does not help. Arguing with her does not help. Brochures and tours—including testimonials from the joyful, active residents of the ideal assisted living community—do not help. What are you to do?

There are many approved methods of moving your mother into assisted living, all of which are contingent upon your mother actually wanting to move into assisted living. We’re not going to talk about any of those, because they don’t apply, and because in the words of a wise man, "The greatest contribution to knowledge consists in removing what we think is wrong.”*

So we’re going to talk about what is wrong, an unapproved, doomed-to-failure method which you will actually find more useful to you, because then you can cross it off your short list of limited options. 

This method is actually a variation of the “just drop her off" technique, which was imparted to my wife and me by a friend. This technique, which my  friend used and swore “worked,” is comprised of taking your unsuspecting mother out to lunch, then afterward just dropping her off at an assisted living community with which you have previously made arrangements, and driving away. The secret to success, she said, was to not visit, call or receive calls from your mother for at least two weeks post drop-off. 

If you are somewhat cold-hearted and have mild sociopathic tendencies, this might hold some appeal for you. Finding an assisted living community that would be complicit in this could be your biggest challenge.

We desired a smoother transition for my mother, one that would insure her immediate delight and ongoing gratitude. 

We had heard of another method—and the assisted living community we had toured and chosen for my mother (“Very nice, but not for me. Maybe someday.”) assured us that other families had found success with this—that we were certain might work. It was elaborate and required split-second timing to implement, but that was part of its appeal.

It went like this:

I took my mother out to lunch in a neighboring city, about an hour away, because we needed time to execute our plan. As soon as we left my mother’s house, my wife, my sister and her husband, with the help of a local mover, packed up my mother’s sofa, bed and bedside tables, a couple more tables, chairs, a dresser, selected photos, artwork and knick-knacks, clothes, toiletries and cosmetics, books, lamps, and to top it all off, her china cabinet and contents.

Over the next few hours, while I entertained my mother, they moved her belongings into a beautiful assisted living apartment, and arranged everything to replicate her home environment as much as possible. They did a fabulous job, and were exhausted from the effort. 

After lunch, both my mother and I were in good moods. Although somewhat apprehensive, I was looking forward to the successful resolution of my mother’s living arrangements, a process that had stretched out over months and months. My mother was just happy. 

That all changed as soon as we pulled up in front of her intended new home.   I will only relate her side of the ensuing conversation, because our responses, although scripted in advance to be soothing, loving, convincing and bulletproof, were, in actual practice, feeble and ineffective.

“What are we doing here?"

“Why are you here?” (to my wife, sister and her husband)

“Where are we going?"

“Take me home immediately!"

“What’s my china cabinet doing here!"

“What’s my _______ doing here."

"Take my furniture back home right now!"

“I can’t believe you did this."

“What’s my china cabinet doing here!"

“Take me home immediately!"

Over and over and over again. She would storm out of the apartment, we would go after her, calm her down, return her to the apartment, and because of her short-term memory impairment, re-enact the same scene. Over and over and over again. Once we had to retrieve her from the middle of the highway. 

This went on deep into the night. My sister and her husband eventually reached their breaking point and left, as did the community’s executive director, marketing director, and other daytime staff members. 

We endured until midnight, then acquiesced and took my mother home, where she stomped around for awhile and eventually went to sleep in a spare bedroom while my wife and I lay awake, desperate and defeated, downstairs. The next day, we moved all her furniture and belongings back to her home.

And that’s how not to move your mother into assisted living.

Eventually, we were able to move her close to us, into another assisted living community that she has grown to love, and in which she feels secure and supported.

But that’s another story.


*Excerpt from: Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “Antifragile.”