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What Is Transfer Trauma and How to Avoid It

Older adults must sometimes move to a new home to meet their current needs. However, uprooting the life of a senior can cause immense stress and disruption known as “transfer trauma.” The big life change, especially for older adults with dementia that cannot participate as much in decision-making, can be very triggering and negative. 

When a move is necessary, there are steps you can take to reduce the effects of transfer trauma and make the experience more positive for the senior. 

Read on to learn more about how to avoid transfer trauma. 

What Is Transfer Trauma?

According to Tracy Greene Mintz, LCSW, the nationally recognized expert in transfer trauma, transfer trauma, also known as relocation stress syndrome, includes a cluster of symptoms that occur in a senior after moving. The mood, behavior and physiological symptoms include:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Irritability 
  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Confusion
  • Combativeness
  • Screaming
  • Complaining
  • Wandering 
  • Withdrawal
  • Refusing care 
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss/gain 
  • Increased coping through bad habits 
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Sudden onset of irritable bowel syndrome 

Older adults suffering from transfer trauma will often complain about their situation and ask to go home. They may question why they are there and how/ when they can leave. The symptoms tend to be worse when the move is sudden or unwanted, like when an older adult breaks a bone during a fall and must go to rehab, but then ends up having to stay. 

Who Is at Risk for Relocation Stress Syndrome?

Any older adult can experience transfer trauma when moving. Transfer trauma is centered around the loss of control and choice producing fear. However, the risk increases for people with dementia because they have a hard time taking in the new information, and are not able to actively participate in the decision making process. Seniors that do not have dementia but have severe physical issues that force a move are also at risk. 

How to Help a Loved One Experiencing Transfer Trauma 

Typically, relocation stress syndrome occurs in people leading up to a move, and within the first three months. It’s important to remember that the trauma can overlap with symptoms of dementia, so you should keep a lookout for any changes in eating, sleeping, cognition, and self-care. If you suspect a loved one is battling with transfer trauma, acknowledge their fears, and be supportive. Additionally, you should avoid moving them again during this time as it will only compound trauma. 

Tips for Avoiding Transfer Trauma

  • Prepare the new facility for transfer trauma, ensuring that they have a protocol in place and will monitor the development of it. 
  • Try your best to include the older adult in the decision-making process, bringing them to visit before moving. 
  • Help your loved one engage in their new community by finding events and organizations they may be interested in. 
  • Make the new place feel like home by decorating with family photos, comfortable items from their last hoe, and familiar scents. 
  • Visit your loved one on a frequent basis to provide a sense of familiarity. 

Moving can be incredibly stressful for older adults, especially those with dementia. By recognizing the signs of transfer trauma and taking precautions to avoid it, you can help your loved one make the move in a safe and healthy way. 

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CarePatrol Team Member
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