Senior Living Decisions: Motivating Factors and Fear of Change

By 1  pm On

The following article by Catherine Owens appeared in the Journal of the Society of Certified Senior Advisors, Summer 2014. The article helps frame the discussion on the tough choices facing elders and their families and the fear of change.

Senior Living Decisions

Senior Living Decisions: Motivating Factors and Fear of Change

by Catherine Owens

When circumstances make it clear that it’s time for some older adults to make changes in their living situations, the decision can be difficult if not traumatic. Helping them through the process requires trust and understanding of the
person’s needs and fears.

“I’m just starting to look into different senior living services and options.”

This is typically the first thing someone says when inquiring about senior living services. As many senior advisors know, whether they are working with seniors or their adult children, there is typically a motivating factor that is prompting the inquiry. This is also true for someone simply inquiring about in-home care or independent living, but the motivating factors usually increase in severity or complexity as the level of services needed increases. It is human nature to resist change until there is a reason, so it is natural that most people take a reactive approach when researching senior living services and options. They do so only when the situation is no longer safe, or when there has been an incident that requires a higher level of support. It is usually clear to the advisor, family members, and even older adults themselves that a change in support is needed to continue living a safe and quality life. So why is it that despite a clear need, there is often a high level of resistance to make changes in support services or in the living situation?

There are several common objections among those faced with these types of decisions:

  • “I don’t want to lose my independence.”
  • “I have to sell my house before I can do anything.”
  • “I am still managing just fine in my home by myself.”

Even if these objections are true, the concern that prompted the inquiry still exists. But often the reality is that these are just excuses. There may be some level of validity, but most of the time there are deeper underlying fears that keep a person from making necessary decisions. This is where the tug of war begins. A crisis or a concern causes people to feel that a change is needed, yet underlying fears pull them away from making the change, causing uncertainty as to which direction to go.

It isn’t uncommon for people to be unable to fully recognize the true underlying fears and concerns that are preventing them from making the necessary changes to their living situations.

So how can you help someone through the ambivalence that comes with looking into senior living services and options? The key is to understand that this is not simply a transactional decision. It’s not just deciding to bring in additional services to their current home, or choosing a certain home or apartment in a senior living community. Rather, it’s an emotional decision where your main intent should be to help provide solutions instead of simply starting services. The higher the level of trust and education you are able to build with clients, the higher the likelihood they will make the necessary changes they need. Here are some simple steps to build client relationships and to more effectively help someone through the overwhelming decision process about senior living options.

Learn the Motivating Factor

It is common for people to be guarded and private when initially inquiring about senior living services. This is often caused by having had an experience with an advisor who took a pushy approach. Clients also may not know where to begin their search or what to ask. An important question for the senior advisor to ask is, “What is happening or has happened to cause you to inquire about senior living services?” Knowing what is motivating the inquiry will help direct the conversation, and showing genuine care in addressing the concern will help establish initial levels of trust.

Understand the Day-to-Day

Gather information about what the day-to-day situation is like for the older adult. Often the crisis or emergency is only the tip of the iceberg, and most likely just a symptom of the current situation. Understanding the day-to-day challenges and contributing factors is important because often, when these are resolved, the urgency to make a change decreases. People are then more inclined to continue in the situation that caused the emergency in the first place. They are less likely to open up and be honest about the challenges when the immediate need goes away. A good question to ask is, “What is not working in your current situation?” As mentioned, this is a decision process. This step may take some time and include numerous phone calls, visits, and meetings with the older adult and/or family members. The very nature of building trust takes time, but as the level of trust increases, the layers will begin to peel away and the client’s level of education will increase as well.

Get to the Bottom of It

Advisors should try to find out what is really causing the ambivalence. It isn’t uncommon for people to be unable to fully recognize the true underlying fears and concerns that are preventing them from making the necessary changes to their living situations. The resistance may be because this is a topic that most people avoid until they are forced to look into it. Encourage clients to make a list of what is pushing them to make a change and what is keeping them from making the change. The simple act of writing out thoughts often helps people to identify what is creating their ambivalence.

Recognize the Fears

A senior advisor must understand the underlying fears. Fear is one of the main emotions people struggle with when faced with bringing additional services into one’s current home or moving from living in a single-occupancy home to a community environment, including:

  • fear of losing independence;
  • fear of losing control of day-to-day decisions;
  • fear of change;
  • fear of the unknown;
  • fear of running out of money;
  • fear of not being the one to care for a spouse;
  • fear of admitting they need help;
  • and fear of losing their identity.

It is critical to understand what the person’s individual fears are. A simple question that can open up this conversation is, “What do you feel you would lose if you made a change in your current situation?” Once the concerns are stated, follow up with questions that help you better understand them. For example, “What does independence mean to you?” Or, “What would help you feel like you were maintaining your independence?”

Readdress the Motivating Factor

The final step is to readdress the motivating factors for the initial inquiry. If the fears and concerns are not addressed, the importance of motivating factors often gets downplayed, and the fears win the tug of war. Yet, if advisors have a clear understanding of their clients’ fears along with a high level of trust, they are more equipped to help them stay focused on the motivation for change and the steps needed to address the concerns. A few simple questions to ask when helping someone struggling with ambivalence might be: “What do you feel you would gain by making this change?” And “What do you feel you would gain by waiting to make this change?” People by nature tend to have a hard time with change due to the uncertainty of something new and not knowing what to expect. The greater the change, the more difficult the decisions required to make that change can be. It is often said that the decision to utilize senior care services or to move to a senior living community can be one of the most difficult decisions a person will ever make. The harder the decision, the higher the level of ambivalence. Hopefully, by incorporating this simple approach to addressing a person’s ambivalence, advisors will be able to increase the level of trust with their clients and more effectively help them through this difficult decision process. — CSA


Catherine Ownes, author of Senior Living Decisions: Motivating Factors and Fear of Change

Catherine L. Owens is an expert in the senior living industry, and specializes in relationship-based sales techniques. Her book, Be Your Own Hero: Senior Living Decisions Simplified, is a guide for those who are going through the process of making life-changing living decisions. To learn more, visit her website at