Relocation Stress Syndrome

Relocation stress syndrome, or “transfer trauma,” is a term used to describe the stressors experienced by someone changing their living environment, especially those in the older adult community. Transfer trauma is often seen in people experiencing early-stage dementia as they transition from their lifelong home to a new environment, often to long-term care. 

“Limitations in short-term memory and new learning memory disrupt the ability for a person with dementia to cope with change. If they’ve lived in their own home their entire lives, they feel secure and comfortable, and familiarity allows them to have some independence. A move erodes their comfort and confidence,” Kim Warchol, the founder and president of Dementia Care Specialists, explains to Social Work Today.

Symptoms of Relocation Stress Syndrome

In many cases, a person living with dementia is unable to communicate the specific cause of their stressors. Warchol notes that symptoms of transfer trauma include:

  • Mood: sadness, irritability, anxiety, tearfulness
  • Behavior: combativeness, challenging staff, wandering, rejection of care
  • Psychological: sleeplessness, loss of appetite, pain, increased heart rate

Strategies for Responding to Relocation Stress Syndrome

“At the core of transfer trauma is fear, loss of control, loss of choice, and lack of the familiar,” explains Warchol. The following are some of the strategies she recommends using to respond to transfer trauma: 

  • Facilitate a sense of purpose/belonging by encouraging residents to do as much for themselves as desired.
  • Encourage new residents to make themselves at home: drink a cup of coffee, read the morning paper, fold laundry. Provide normalizing experiences.
  • Educate and support the family because they may be experiencing guilt, worry, or stress about their decision.
  • Overemphasize welcoming a resident and their family to the community–it’s their home! Foster friendship and connection and explore common activities to enjoy together.
  • Support residents so they feel they have gained something rather than lost.
Residents at an adult community getting settled in to make it feel like home
Resident at memory care facility going through relocation stress syndrome reading a newspaper and settling in.

Family members are important resources; they can give you details about a resident’s routine and lifestyle prior to moving to an assisted living community, such as routines, preferences, habits, and emotions, says Warchol. 

At Central Baptist Village, our dedicated staff provides exceptional care for our residents. We promote the independence, safety, and socialization of each resident who is experiencing changes, including relocation stress syndrome, throughout the continuum of memory care.