Senior Couple Facing Empty Room with Packed Moving Boxes and Potted Plants.

Dr. Amy Case Study: Adjusting to retirement living

Think back to when you went away from home for the first time, or started your first job. Can you remember how you felt in each of those experiences? For most of us, we experienced mixed feelings—likely excitement about something new, nervousness about whether we would like the new experience or fit in with people there, and perhaps a bit of sadness about what we left behind. All are normal feelings associated with changes in our lives.

Similarly, it is common for people to have a variety of feelings when they move into a retirement residence. That was certainly true for George and Suzanne.* Initially, Suzanne was ambivalent about moving from the home they had lived in for almost 50 years. She knew there were very good reasons to move: she was no longer interested in cooking every day, and found getting groceries challenging in the winter. She and her husband were also finding the upkeep of their home a lot to manage, and were feeling a bit isolated since she wasn’t supposed to be driving. Yet, she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

About a month after they chose to move into a retirement residence, I went to visit Suzanne. We had a cup of tea together and she told me about the things she missed about living in her former home. Mostly she missed the familiarity; after all, they had lived in that house for decades! I told Suzanne it was perfectly normal to have some sadness about leaving her old home, as it is a normal emotion when we make a big shift in our lives.

close up potrait of smiling Asian senior couple on bright greenSuzanne then went on to tell me about all the things she really liked about living in her retirement residence. She no longer worried about falling on her slippery wood stairs, she loved having delicious meals that she didn’t have to cook, and she really liked coming downstairs every morning and having tea and chatting with people. She and George were already making friends and trying new activities.

I reassured Suzanne that this mixture of feelings—excited about this new chapter, but also a bit sad about leaving behind the old—was simply part of going through a life transition. It did not mean it was a bad decision to move; just that it was going to take some time to settle in.

When I saw Suzanne a few months later, she was much more light-hearted. She told me about the new friends she had made and the activities she was participating in. She was going on outings with other residents and loved being more active. She looked happy and told me she felt younger than she had in a long while.

Some people take longer than others to move through the in-between stages of a transition. It is a bit like letting go of one trapeze without yet catching the other one. You are reaching forward hopefully, but it’s all a bit unsettling.

And in my experience, women and men may grapple with different emotions. George’s biggest challenge was feeling that he had failed in his role as a provider for his wife because they needed to leave their home. I asked him what Suzanne was like when she was younger. He laughed and told me she was always on the go and had lots of friends. She was a very social person. I told him I thought that he was a wonderful provider for his wife, because at this life stage she couldn’t be active and social in their old home, but he had provided a place where she had that again. Also, it seemed his wife was enjoying not cooking or having to do a lot of household chores. Because she had been a housewife and stay-at-home mother, it was as if he provided for her to “retire” from the work she did in their relationship by providing for them to “right-size” their lives.

George hadn’t looked at it from that perspective before. As Suzanne became happier and more active, he realized that he hadn’t failed her at all: he was giving them both the best quality of life in this chapter of their lives. He, too, settled in and began to fully enjoy all their retirement residence offered.

If you are planning a move into a retirement residence, you may wonder if you can settle in as well as Suzanne and George. Think back on other stages of your life and I bet you’ll find many other life transitions you went through in which you had mixed emotions while you let go of one chapter and moved into another. We can call on that experience to remind ourselves that we are adaptable, and that new adventures await us if we continue to be willing to move through the mixture of feelings that accompany change.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.