Is Relocation Stress Syndrome Real?

Relocation Stress Syndrome can have serious symptoms

Relocation Stress Syndrome (RSS), also known as “transfer trauma”, is a medical or nursing condition that describes older adults who are experiencing a severe emotional response to some type of stressful transition. 

It’s frequently seen in situations like a downsizing move. But, it can show up in other types of transition where there’s an abrupt change to their surroundings or life patterns.

Examples can include a person experiencing a fall, stroke, or other severe illness that requires them to be hospitalized. Many recover and return home within weeks or months. But, some are unable to return to their home because they aren’t able to care for themselves on their own.

Depending on their condition, this usually requires a move to an assisted living community, skilled nursing, or memory care where they can receive direct care.

Few know about this condition

I had never heard of this syndrome until I experienced it personally within my own family when my mother and step-father decided they needed to move from a large home to smaller, more manageable quarters.

They both had moved multiple times throughout their life. This was not their first move rodeo.

But, a few weeks into the purge process I noticed some startling changes in my Mom that I had never seen before.

Her biggest behavioral change was a bad case of brain fog. She was easily confused and even the simplest decisions were overwhelming. 

Relocation Stress Syndrome can create anxiety, brain fog, sadness, and more

I started doing some research on her symptoms and soon found that she was the poster child for Relocation Stress Syndrome.

Typical symptoms can include anxiety, brain fog, social withdrawal, sleep disturbance, sadness, crying jags, appetite issues that result in weight loss, increased dependency behavior, depression, an increase in temper, and even hallucinations.

Pretty serious, right?  I was concerned, so I sought help.

Here’s the good news.  There are things you can do to counter these symptoms and help your family member, client, or friend get back on track.

1. Don’t ignore the stress symptoms

It’s common for people to blow off these symptoms as just being “age-related” or that they’re resistant to change.  In some cases, families may even believe their loved one is in the early stages of dementia. But, that is not the case here.

Yes, it is a psychological malaise.  The difference is that it’s not chemically driven, it’s emotionally driven.

2.  Acknowledge their symptoms & emotions

It’s critical to address the symptoms with the person, especially if they are escalating quickly.  It can help calm them if they understand that this is a temporary and normal reaction to sudden change. It also opens the dialog to understand what they’re feeling and an opportunity to talk through it in a healthy and open way.

Feeling supported can go a long way in reducing the stress that causes the issue in the first place. So, it’s important to acknowledge their emotions, not downplay them.

Humor can help reduce stress

3.  Bring in some humor

Humor can be the ultimate balm for emotionally charged situations.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean laughing at them.  But, there is always an opportunity to share a funny story or perspective about the situation that can bring a smile (or even a good belly laugh).

There’s even a physiological benefit to laughing! The Mayo Clinic did a study that showed that laughing brings in more oxygen to the body, it counters your physical stress responses, releases tension, and can even relieve pain.  Lightening up an environment with humor is just what the Doctor ordered!

4. Reinforce the positive

Sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint the positive in a challenging transition, especially if the person is seriously ill or injured.  But, there is always a silver lining in every situation. Dig for it!  In the case of a downsizing move, it could be that they won’t have to worry about taking care of a large yard or need to clean a huge house. They’ll have more time to do things that make them happy and aren’t so physically taxing. 

Reminding and reinforcing these messages with your loved one or client can shift their focus to a more positive future.

Mirroring the location of items as they had it in their old home helps

5.  Honor old rituals and create new ones

One of the reasons that people resist change so much is that they fear they won’t be able to enjoy their favorite daily ritual or habit anymore. Humans crave comfort and stability, so helping a person retain as many of their comfort rituals as possible can make change less scary. As Downsizing Specialists, we do that using a process called “mirroring”. When setting up their new home, we do our best to mirror areas from their former home by placing favorite items in the same places they had them before. Examples would be bedside stands, family room end tables, kitchen items, and so on.

It’s a visual and tactile tool that helps people relax, knowing that despite the fact that their environment has changed, their favorite daily rituals can continue.

It also takes their mind off the changes around them and encourages a more open mindset to the adjustments they need to face.

Relocation Stress Syndrome can lead to more serious conditions

Relocation Stress Syndrome (RSS) should always be taken seriously.  In some cases, if ignored, it can lead to an erosion of a person’s mental and physical functionality.

Even worse, it can develop into severe depression or thoughts of suicide.

If symptoms increase unabated, despite your best efforts, seek help from a medical professional.  Temporary medication treatment may be needed until they’re back on their feet.

It varies from person to person, but RSS can often last up to 6 months.  In more severe cases, it can last a year or more. But, the good news is that it’s not a permanent condition.

Knowing what to look for in behavioral changes for your client or family member is half the battle! This is one of several important emotional and psychological issues I address in the Senior Downsizing Specialist Training program . It can make all the difference in your client’s transition experience!